In Which I Argue At Length With A MacArthur Genius

Strong-ily, wrong-ily
Tout their position:
“The self as the brain”

Finding our cause in our
Sadly, it’s fictional:
Lemme explain….

(tl;dr–”brain as self” models are dependent on a particular philosophical model; the conclusions are more a factor of the requirements of that model than of the evidence.)

Mano presents a clip from the Colbert Report, in which neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland tells Colbert that neuroscience shows there is no such thing as, among other things, a soul.

True enough… but damn, does she have to say the brain is responsible for consciousness? That is just plain… well, dependent on a set of philosophical assumptions that are rarely if ever questioned. Which leads to bad questions, which leads to crap answers, which leads to “deep philosophical questions” that are a pile of horseshit.

“We (some mammals) have the same neural mechanism for pair bonding” (paraphrased from Churchland’s interview) is not at all the same thing as “the brain is responsible for pair bonding”. And the difference makes all the difference in the world. And, oddly enough, the difference is philosophical.

If you think that, say, a person could be replicated at a given moment—replicated down to the quark, or smaller if such things exist—and that this replicated being would possess all the qualities of the original… then you are a mechanist. The notion that your life history is stored, is somehow represented in the structures of your body, is mechanistic. The requirement that any change in your behavior is necessarily the effect of some immediate cause, some proximal cause stored in body or mind or wherever… is mechanistic. That is, these things which make so much sense, make sense because they are framed in terms of a mechanistic world view which you (not just you , of course) have been fed since you were knee high to a jackalope.

But, you see, mechanism is not A) the only philosophy you can use in such scenarios, nor B) the way you live your life and learn the terms used back in that mechanistic scenario. See, the thing is, events in your life unfold over time. And that time need not be compressed and represented as some instantaneous thing. Mechanism’s metaphor is a clockwork, and you can stop a clock, look at its gears, and infer what happens in present, past, and future. A clockwork represents all of that information in an instantaneous slice of time/space. That’s a requirement of the model. That’s not a requirement of reality.

You see, there are other models. A contextualist model recognizes the contributions that happen across time and across situation, and does not require that they be “stored” inside you, since they actually do exist outside you, and are part of the context of your actions. Your actions can only be defined as embedded within context—the environments that promote or suppress a given range of behavior, the consequences that select for or against a range of behavior…

In other words, what you do in a given situation depends on what has tended to work in similar situations. An evolutionary model, really.

“Fitness” is not stored within an individual; fitness is defined across populations, across generations, with respect to environments. Fitness is necessarily dependent on variables that are defined across extended time and space. To place “fitness” inside an individual, as the presumed cause of their success or failure at something (sex, say, or foraging), is to misrepresent the concept. (alas, yes, I have seen it presented this way—that is precisely the problem I am writing about.)


The same, exact misrepresentation is constantly used in human behavior. There are concepts (again, like “fitness” in biology, and “consciousness” in behavior) that are only definable in a manner extended over time, and dependent on environment. Those wonderful brains that are the “cause” of the self? They have been shaped by the environment, in (at least) two very important ways, across two very different scales of time. One, of course, is evolution—this is at least given lip service in the “brain is self” camp, though it seems all too often as if they want to think of our modern brain as the ultimate product of evolution, rather than an ongoing work. But yes, over millions and billions of years, the environment has selected this behavior over that, and the brain structures that support this behavior have thus been favored. It is not, of course, the brain itself that is being selected for or against, but the behavior (and in our case, the flexibility in behavior) it allows.

The second sort of environmental influence, I don’t think I have ever seen credited in a “brain is self” claim, although it is every bit as important as the evolutionary history. Every brain that a researcher runs through a PET scan, CAT scan, X-ray, FMRI, or EEG… is part of an actual person, a whole organism that has been interacting with an environment, including a culture, for all of its lifetime thus far. This brain is part of a person who behaves—over time, and with respect to environment (including social and cultural environment as well as physical environment)—and whose behavior can only be seen as unfolding across time.

You cannot slice open a person’s leg to see where they have walked. A person’s accent is not stored in their vocal cords while they are not speaking. Where they have walked, and how they talk, are dependent on where, and with whom, they lived. We speak of stored abilities, or traits, or habits, but these things are only seen unfolding across time, and their “storage” is not observed but inferred under the assumptions of that clockwork model. The inference comes as a requirement of the model, not as an obvious part of the behavior—where is my walk stored, when I sit down?

Consciousness does not arise in the brain. It is a property of our interactive behavior, unfolding over time. Everything about what it means to be conscious, what it means to be aware, takes place across time and in interaction with an environment; to say it is caused by some brain part is to neglect the history of the environment shaping the brain. “Brain as self” is, functionally, as dualistic (and as wrong) as Descartes’s substance dualism. The brain does not control the body; the brain is part of the body. If there is metaphorical puppetry going on, it is not the brain as puppet master—rather, the environment (across genetic time as well as individual learning) is the puppet master, and the brain acts as the strings.

There Are Times I Just Hate The Brain

Your brain does this; your brain does that;
Your brain does other stuff.
Your brain controls your body, and
(If that was not enough)
Your brain makes all your choices, and
Your brain dreams all your dreams—
So much of what you are is in
Your brain… or so it seems.

I’ve learned about neurology,
Psychology, and more;
I’ve learned about the brain, its parts,
And what each part is for;
My books, and journal articles,
Have overflowed my shelf
And still, I’ve never found a brain
That did it by itself.

Your brain is in your body
And your body moves around,
And you interact with others
And to others you are bound
And the world is full of stimuli
Which influence your brain—
Your brain is not the cause, but just
A link within the chain

Of course the brain’s important, but
It isn’t where things start.
It relies upon your kidneys; it
Relies upon your heart.
It depends on your environment,
And everything you do…
The thing that does such wondrous stuff?
It’s not your brain. It’s you.

Dammit. We got rid of Cartesian dualism, and still I can’t swing a dead cat without hitting seventeen examples of a de facto brain-body dualism that maintains the same annoying tradition. I swear, today I saw it in blogs, in newspaper articles, and now sitting down and watching “Through The Wormhole” with Morgan Freeman (in particular, the episode on “did we create God?” or some such–”the brain sees patterns”, “the brain makes connections”, “the brain blah blah blah…”

No. The brain does not see patterns. The brain is a major part of how we see patterns. The brain does not do so without the eyes, and it does not do so without two very important sets of environmental histories–the individual’s interaction with the environment (literally beginning with the environment in the womb, in development), and the interaction with the environment over millennia that is reflected in the genes. The brain is not magic (which Descartes’s concept of “mind” was, technically); it is part of how we gather information from the environment and act upon that environment. Other parts include our eyes & ears, our bones and muscles, our teachers and histories, our communities and our cultures.

As one of my commenters (sorry for forgetting your name) said a while ago, the brain is necessary but not sufficient. In context, that meant “for consciousness”, but it’s pretty much true for the rest of what we do, innit?

The Pope Is Stepping Down

So in his honor, a verse that speculates on what really goes on in the college of cardinals as they go about the business of selecting a new guy to wear the funny hat:

We struggle in vain to distinguish a Mass
From your typical Zombie behavior
As they guzzle down red by the bottle or glass
And delight in Filet of Our Savior.

Perhaps it’s a matter of what’s on the menu;
Your Catholic is more of a snacker,
But if you feel teeth on your shoulder, why, then you
Know zombies want more than a cracker.

When Jesus said “This is my blood that you drink,
And this is my body you eat”
Did something he knew of their tastes make him think
They were zombies, and lusting for meat?

Did the Catholic Church, from the time of Saint Peter,
Rejoice in the words that he said,
And at least once a week, become Zombie flesh-eater
And feast upon Jesus Undead?

I worry it’s some sort of slippery slope
Where they struggle ‘gainst gravity’s chains
And I wonder if Ratzinger got to be Pope
By eating the Cardinals’ brains.

Image by the wonderful Jessica Hagy.

At The Dalai Lama’s Science Conference…

They’re analyzing consciousness
By means of introspection
And none of them have noticed that
They’ve looked the wrong direction.

The Dalai Lama saw the moon
Was not lit from within
He shared his observation
(To his tutors’ great chagrin)

Tibetan thought did not survive
Objective observation
The moon was not a lantern—
That was just imagination

This sparked his curiosity
And formed a strange alliance:
A Buddhist monk’s philosophy
And love of modern science

This skepticism surely might
Be called on to explain
How their use of introspection
Tells us beans about the brain

They call it looking inward—
That’s the purpose that it serves—
But the trick is that the brain itself
Is lacking sensory nerves!

We cannot feel our thinking—
To those processes, we’re blind;
So introspect your brains out, but
Beware of what you find.

They’re analyzing consciousness
By means of introspection
And none of them have noticed that
They’ve looked the wrong direction.

So, yeah, the Dalai Lama (winner of the 2012 Templeton Prize in Science & Religion) hosted a science conference. The 26th Mind and Life Conference (this year’s theme: Mind, Brain, & Matter) invited scientists and Buddhist monks to join in scientific pursuit of an understanding of consciousness:

The examination is rooted in the personal story of the Dalai Lama. During his secluded training as a child in Tibet, he would gaze at the night sky through a telescope on the roof of the Potala Palace. He looked at the moon with such intensity he realized the shadows and asperities on its surface contradicted the Tibetan belief that it was lit from within. He took his findings to his tutors.

“When I told my tutors of my interest in science, they replied that it made sense,” said the Dalai Lama during his welcome speech to the conference. “However, although we have an interest in science, that doesn’t mean we have to devote all our energy to it. I spend the majority of my time in meditation on love, compassion and wisdom, which is the source of my interest in science.”

It’s perfectly understandable that a meditating monk would want to understand consciousness. It’s also understandable that scientists would. Which makes it a bit strange that the confluence is, well, strange. But I guess we are used to science and religion having such very different, competing, and (often) mutually exclusive approaches to finding the truth. These monks, though, are not like, say, young-earth creationists:

The monks are Tibetan scholars from all monasteries who followed a multiple-year science course and are now asked by the Dalai Lama to compile what they learned into a book for their fellow monks. “These are monks who have spent from early morning to late night memorizing ancient texts, having them explained by wise elders and debating them long into the night,” says Rato’s abbot. “They had to leave behind Tibetan beliefs in place for centuries and apply the same strict discipline they had in their Buddhist studies to modern science.”

This is the strength of mind required of the modern monk, he says: a capacity for knowledge, open mindedness and debate, carried alongside the absolute belief in Buddha’s words.

That last bit does raise the question of whether this is a joining of science and faith, or a superb job of compartmentalization.

As for the scientists?

Responses from the scientists differed strongly.

Christof Koch, a University of California neuroscience best known for his work on consciousness, said we could speculate but ultimately we don’t know where it lies beyond the brain, its physical basis. He added that all mammals have consciousness but it is impossible to know where it lies (for example, our immune system can function without it).

Matthieu Ricard, the French monk who was a genetics scientist before taking up the monastic life, turned towards his Buddhist teaching more than his scientific past.

“By honest introspection, by following one line of inquiry which is pure experience,” one can reach an understanding of consciousness, he said.

Ricard then addressed the topic of reincarnation and some individuals’ ability to remember past lives.

Arthur Zajonc, a professor emeritus of physics at Harvard, doesn’t consider himself a Buddhist he said. Yet, he added, “I meditate and through that, have come to believe in the possibility of reincarnation.”

I’ve seen Koch speak before; his expertise is in the brain, of course, so it makes sense that he looks there (and that his expertise is there and not in the terra incognita he sees outside). Koch has also worked with Francis Crick, of “you are your brain” fame, (oh, yeah, and being a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA), with which I very much disagree; again, it makes perfect sense that he looks to the brain for answers. Ricard and Zajonc, it appears to me, suffer from the very common problem among scientists: they take their well-earned scientific expertise to mean that they know what they are talking about in other areas. Their reliance on meditation and introspection (apparently the monks’ investigative methodology of choice) is fatally flawed: the brain, lacking sensory nerves, cannot feel itself think.

This, of course, is why we have such bizarre conceptions of “mind” as something ontologically distinct from matter. Imagine you could not feel yourself, say, walking. It would feel like you were magically floating from place to place (or perhaps teleported there in a flash?). You cannot feel yourself think; you only have partial access to some of the outputs of that thinking, and even then your access is both imperfect and subject to constraints of situation–were you even attending to that information at the time? (For those who have not seen it, looking around for examples of attentional blindness, or the art of the pickpocket, easily demonstrates the limits of our awareness.) Let us suppose that the extraordinary training of the monks allows them to attend to all of the outputs at once (very unlikely, but let’s go there)–they would still have no direct access to any of the processes that led to those outputs. And researchers like Koch are happy to tell us of how many interacting and/or parallel processes are at work in an active brain. The metaphors that come to me–diagnosing car problems without opening the hood, or diagnosing computer problems without the ability to see what any of the components are doing–all are considerably simpler than trying to figure out this extraordinarily complex, non-intelligently designed, meat-based data processor.
XKCD cartoon
(image: XKCD, of course)
From the point of view of the introspector, it feels like magic. The vocabulary we use to speak of consciousness, of course, precedes scientific exploration of consciousness, but still shapes what we expect to find, and what explanations we will accept as reasonable. It’s like asking how the sun climbs through the sky, and rejecting the notion that the earth turns. Magic begins to seem reasonable. As long as we’ve got magic consciousness, why the hell not have reincarnation as well? (BTW, the Times post mentions that quantum physics was a topic at the conference–at a “mind, brain, & matter” conference, this can only mean one thing–quantum physics was being misused, and can very likely be considered the modern vocabulary for “magic”.)

I’ve written more than I intended to, already. I’ll stop rather abruptly here. Oh, but I will note that the conference is available for viewing–11 looong youtube videos cover the morning and afternoon sessions of the 6-day conference. I’ll be looking through them at least a bit, to see if I am wrong.

I was wrong once before, and didn’t like it.

Mechanism, Contextualism, And The Limits Of Brain Science

Over at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, Alva Noë writes about “Science And The Allure Of ‘Nothing But“, a topic near and dear to my hearts. Reductionism in science has led us to some frankly silly stances, but stances held and strongly defended by major players, and (probably, but I have not counted) a majority of those working–for instance, Francis Crick’s claim that “you are your brain”. We fetishize the brain–not a week goes by (or so it seems) that we don’t see some trivial aspect of human behavior get the official stamp of approval because some researcher has located an area in the brain associated with… lying, or love, or awe, or fear, or jealousy. Mind you, we already knew these things existed–indeed, the vocabulary of the “mind” long preceded our ability to look meaningfully into the brain, and so it makes no sense whatsoever to think that such a phenomenon could only (or even reasonably) be defined within that three pound mass of goo.

What Noë does not say (it is a piece for the general public, after all) is that a large part of our brain fetish has to do with the dominance of a philosophy of mechanism, wherein we use the metaphor of a machine (typically a clockwork, but Noë uses a car in this essay) to understand whatever it is we are looking at. We see how the bits go together, how this machine varies from that one in important ways, but that they are similar in others (averages and ideals are very important in this metaphor), and how some parts control other parts. The brain is a controller of sorts in this model.

Mechanism, however, is not the only philosophical stance science may use. Contextualism, or functional contextualism, looks at things through an entirely different perspective, asking different questions and demanding different answers. Rather than a machine, the metaphor is a behavior in its context–running is never just running, for instance, but exercise, or escape, or hurrying, depending on context. The same behavior or feature might be adaptive in one context and not in another, or different behaviors or features might exploit the same resource. Natural Selection is best framed contextually (which might be obvious by now), as is radical behaviorism and its offshoot molar behaviorism. As the article puts it:

You are not your brain. You are a brain, in a body, situated in an environment, an environment that includes other people, artifacts, as well as mere physical stuff. And when you are living, then you are in continuous interaction and transaction with the surrounding world.

Behaviors and populations extend across both time and space, and interact with an ever-changing and responsive environment. This is the world we live in, and this is the world in which our vocabulary about lying, love, awe, fear, and jealousy (and everything else) came to be useful. And yet, it is the discrete mechanisms of this brain area or that, that we are currently trying to reduce our experience to?

I still have grading to do, so I have already written more on this than I have time to. I will close with something from a while back, inspired by the beautiful photos of macropinna microstoma from 2009. If we had this fish’s head, maybe we could look inward to understand ourselves. But we do not, and so if we truly wish to understand ourselves, I suggest we start looking around instead.

I have no eyes to look behind
And view my brain, much less my mind;
I cannot know your thoughts, and you
Are blind to what I’m thinking, too.
These are the facts; we can’t deny
We have no working “inner eye”
Nor any form of ESP;
Your thoughts cannot be seen by me.

The claim—that we can know ourselves—
Is countered by the miles of shelves
Of self-help books. Our knowledge hides
From where we’re told that it resides!
If we could simply take a look
Inside our minds, why need a book?
We’d never ask “How do I feel?
Could this be love? Could it be real?”

If God or Science offered me
Some cranial transparency
So you could see my every thought—
The change of mind; the urge I fought,
The censored comment never spoken,
Secret kept and promise broken—
What fabled treasures! Wondrous finds,
If we could read each other’s minds!

But we cannot. Make no mistake,
Our skulls and minds are both opaque
We do, instead, what we can do;
We read the things in public view
We see the song, the poem, the kiss;
Infer from these that love is this.
In turn, each element we find
We sum, and call the total “mind”.

If I could see inside my head,
(A place where angels fear to tread)
And see how thinking really works,
The jumble of selected quirks
And if (what wonders “if” can do!)
I saw inside your thinking too
I think that I should never see
What now makes up philosophy.

God, Neurology, And Bliss

A vision of God’s not the slightest bit odd
When your brain’s shutting down, argues Sacks
But you knew all along some would find his view wrong
And would write of the logic he lacks
We might not be deceived; perhaps God was perceived
When the cranial neurons misfired
That was already known. What these data have shown
Is… to see Him, no God is required.

Oliver Sacks writes today in The Atlantic–a highly accessible piece on the neurology of life-altering religious experiences. He notes the documented role of epileptic seizures, typically of the right temporal lobe, which may sometimes give rise to overwhelming feelings of bliss. Other brain activity, of course, may be involved in auditory and visual hallucinations. Essentially, the same areas of the brain that are involved in feeling bliss for mundane reasons are stimulated by seizure, in the absence of some awe-invoking stimulus to account for them, or the face-perceiving fusiform area is stimulated in the absence of an actual face to look at.

It’s a bit like running in place; same muscles involved as in running, but different context. In these cases, your brain is running in place. (It is worth noting that there are many different sorts of experiences that get lumped together into, say, “near death experience”, so it is not reasonable to expect the same physiological underpinnings should account for all of them.)

These experiences are incredibly vivid, and those who experience them are loathe to accept mere biological explanations–which Sacks also illustrates.

But to me, the better illustration came in the comments. To paraphrase a number of commenters… One need not have experienced such a seizure and its accompanying bliss in order to deny a naturalistic explanation. After all, the fact that we can see faces without a face being present does not disprove the existence of faces in the real world! Maybe some people who claim to experience God are only experiencing a seizure, but who knows how many are actually, really and truly, experiencing God’s love directly? It’s only Sacks’s materialistic world view that prevents him from seeing this possibility!

Of course, Sacks knows full well that his article, and all the evidence it cites, could not hope to disprove the ultimate unfalsifiable hypothesis, god.

But it does show that the claim of experiencing the touch of God, even if taken as one’s honest and truthful view, need not require any actual god. We have, now, at least two competing hypotheses which both account for a feeling of overwhelming bliss.

Only one of which requires violating naturalistic assumptions.