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.


  1. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.

    – Emo Phillips

  2. says

    That was a great article by Noë and you did a brilliant job summarising its main points and extending on them. It should be such a simple and uncontroversial issue but it always baffles me when people repeat obviously mistaken mantras like ‘you are your brain’.

  3. says

    BTW, your blog is misnamed. Just sayin’

    Indeed, and intentionally so. I was given the name by someone I was arguing with years ago who was trying to convince me that behaviorism was dead and asserted that I must be ‘the last behaviorist’. I enjoyed the absurdity of it and thought it would be a decent blog name – plus, it was better than the other name I could come up with: “KewlBAnAnas69lol”.

  4. Cuttlefish says

    It’s a great name. I just know a couple dozen people who would love to have beaten you to it! (And many more who would have argued on the side of your someone years ago.)

  5. says

    Thanks! And yes, we do seem to be outnumbered but I’m glad there is not an absolute imbalance. Be sure to point them in my direction if they’re ever looking for behaviorist blogs, I’d love to double my readership from 2 people to 4. My stat counter would go off the chart!

  6. Shplane, Spess Alium says

    I am completely unsure as to how this refutes the idea that “you are your brain” is meant to convey. Of course your brain, and hence you, interact with things, and those things interact with it in turn. I have yet to hear anyone say that the brain exists in a vacuum and that its environment has no ability to modify it. Yet that does not mean that said environment is a part of the entity that that brain creates, just as the road is not part of the car. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t valuable to talk about those interactions, or that maybe they aren’t talked about enough. It just means that the criticism is silly.

    We are our brains. The part of us that thinks, and thus the part of us that can be said to be “us” is our brain. Yes, it generally thinks about things that exist externally to it, and yes, it is important to understand those things to understand its function. But the part doing the thinking is the brain. The part doing the business of being a person is the brain.

  7. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Shplane, spess Alium,

    Read Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind. The brain is necessary to thinking, but not sufficient.

  8. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    I should perhaps stress that Clark is not proposing any kind of woo – but both other parts of the body, and the external environment, are cognitive resources, essential to much of what we call “thinking”.

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