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.