Wednesday, 26 November 2014

I Act Therefore I Am

Rene Descartes famously declared "Cogito ergo sum" — commonly translated as "I think therefore I am." This belief—or article of philosophical faith even—that our agency exists as a purely private affair altogether disconnected from public interaction, continues to sponsor many misconceptions about the nature of mind. Whilst Descartes' theory of the immaterial mind may have been abandoned for more materialistic accounts, the vestiges of Cartesianism linger on in the widespread assumption that brains are somehow agents equipped with their own skills and techniques such as modelling, imaging, computation etc. as well as sophisticated semantic or semiotic forms of signal encoding. So far all of these have been entirely impervious to all attempts at decryption.

Philosopher Peter Hacker and neuroscientist Max Bennett use conceptual analysis to examine and highlight many of the conceptual errors that arise as a consequence of attributing to the brain skills that only a brain and body can perform. In response, many theorists and scientists simply dismiss their work as stipulative assertions and as the exhortations of language police. These theorists and scientists see no contradiction in supposing that brains have capacities of detection, despite the fact that brains contain no sensory organs. And they assume therefore that brains produce their own representations in order to go about their business. But what if these theorists and scientists are mistaken in dismissing Hacker an Bennett? Is a new paradigm called for? From my own Brookian point of view, an analysis of the evolutionary emergence of representational skills adds significant weight to Hacker and Bennett's challenge to neurotheism and suggests that whilst many of the findings of neuroscience are important, much of the theory is significantly less perspicacious.

Representation is a social skill. It is something that we learn through communicative transactions with other similarly endowed creatures, most notably other members of our own species. Fundamentally representation is a co-operative exchange. According to Constance Classen (1993) "'Cogito ergo sum', literally means 'I put in motion together (coagitare) therefore I am'." The etymology is revealing: Co=together + Agitare= to act upon. 

Mindedness emerges through social interaction  through our varied skills as communicators.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

On The Indivisibility Of Brain And Body

The other day my four-year-old son mentioned his brain. I asked him if he had any idea where it was and he said he didn’t know. I was on the verge of explaining that the brain is where we do our thinking when I hesitated.  Saying that the brain is where thinking goes on is like saying that the heart is where circulation goes on or an oven is where food preparation occurs. The astrophysicist Carl Sagan once famously said: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” The same could be said of thought.

This doesn’t mean to say that we cannot understand thought, or that the brain is a black box forever closed to neuroscience. It simply means that thought is not something that can intelligibly be attributed to brains or neurons. Thought is something that skilled organisms do in virtue of tools and techniques that they acquire to a very substantial degree from culture – just like the tools and techniques etc. that enable food preparation.

Either thinking is an action or else it is not. If it is an action then it is mistaken to suppose that brains think, because brains are not agents and cannot act. Only embrained bodies – persons – are agents and only agents are capable of doing things.

If we want to insist that thinking is not an action, then we face multiple difficulties and objections. For example, it would no longer be coherent to respond to the question “What are you doing?” by saying “I’m just thinking,” and we would face the formidable challenge of distinguishing between ongoing brain processes that are clearly not actions and the thoughts that we have decided do not qualify as actions either.

Similar absurdities arise when we entertain sci-fi fantasies about brains in vats. A brain in a vat wouldn’t have experiences, not even memory experiences. Strictly speaking, memory recall is not an experience. Whilst we have ways of recounting the past and these capacities – consciously entertained – often elicit emotional responses, these responses are not in the brain, they are embodied (including the brain of course). Not only are brains incapable of actions but they have no feelings either. They have no sense receptors. Nor do brains memorise feelings – they don’t have to. When we recall a memory the associated emotional responses are generated anew in the body including the brain. So a brain stripped of a body wouldn’t have feelings of any kind – either emotional or sensory. It would be a thing with a notional capacity to initiate actions but no opportunity to do so, nor to feel the embodied frisson of recall. And if the trauma of surgery did not kill it outright, the trauma of desperate isolation would almost certainly lead to a very rapid demise. Even people with locked-in syndrome are not “cut off” from sensation, and the accounts of those who have survived paint a unimaginable picture of desolation and despair.

Your brain is your body and your body is you.