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.


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