MY BRAIN AND I
D. R. Khashaba
To Richard Schain, philosopher of the inner reality
[Submitted to Philosophy Pathways 10 September 2008]
Biologists, evolutionists, evolutionary psychologists have been busy with experimentation and research into human nature, behaviour, morals, beliefs. They study religious and philosophical issues and confidently expect science to explain spiritual experiences. Neuroscientists continue to probe deeper and deeper into the brain – human and other than human. That is all very good for science and may augur much good in the practical sphere. But, I am afraid, there is a fly in the ointment! False conclusions may be – and sometimes are – drawn; false expectations are fostered; questions are rendered unanswerable because the answers are sought where they cannot be found. (See for instance: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121450609076407973.html?mod=hps_us_inside_today
Thus neuroscientists continue to examine the brain in the hope – not of finding the mind, oh, no!, but of satisfying us – they are satisfied beforehand – that there is no such thing. And I readily grant them that: the mind is no thing; the mind is not even an entity if by entity we understand a definite or definitely fixed thing. The mind is the activity, the living fire that is kindled by the brain, that is inseparable of the brain and of the whole body, but is nevertheless a reality in its own right, over and above the elements and the processes of the brain and the body. But let me not run ahead of my argument.
Sandra Blakesless (“Flesh Made Soul”, Science & Spirit, March 1, 2008, http://www.science-spirit.org/newdirections.php?article_id=740
) concludes her article by saying that “if our cultural upbringing has convinced us that God exists, we will interpret [our spiritual experiences] as proof of a divine power. But if we doubt that God exists, we will turn to science and hope that researchers will eventually learn how to induce spiritual experience in anyone who asks for it.” I think this epitomizes all that is wrong with current thinking about the mind-body problem: it confuses the issue in two ways, first by sneaking in the false assumption that either God exists or else the stuff of the phenomenal world is all there is, and secondly by ignoring the distinction between scientific and philosophical questions, assuming that all questions can be settled by the methods of science.
I am not a scientist and hence will not touch upon the brilliant work that is being done by biologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists. I will merely try to clear away some of the haze gathering around the good scientific research. And let me at once make clear that in maintaining that certain questions raised in the course of or in conjunction with such research fall outside the proper sphere of science and are not amenable to the methods of objective science, I am not aligning myself with those who see the mind or soul as something superadded to or infused into the body, coming from a source beyond or above or apart from nature. I maintain that apart from nature nothing ‘exists’ (though what I exactly mean by that would take long to explicate).
We are told, for instance, that recent research has shown that, in situations involving choice, the brain determines the choice before we consciously ‘make’ our choice. (Whether the time-lapse between the brain-decision and the conscious decision be seconds or milliseconds is of no consequence.) So it would seem that it is not ‘we’ who make the choice but our brain. Here we have to stop and reflect: what do we mean by we and how do we distinguish between ourselves and our brains?
But before I go into that, there is one point I have to make to put the question in proper perspective. I believe that the problem of free will is unnecessarily muddled by identifying free will with choice. Choice, far from signifying freedom, is the consequence of an individual being placed in extraneously determined circumstances and always involves the weighing against each other of relative goods or of relative evils. The choice, when ‘free’ in the sense of being free of foreign coercion, is yet fully determined by antecedents. In true freedom, in the spontaneity of an act of love or of artistic creativity, there is never a question of choice. (In the case of artistic creation choice comes in only where the creativity lags or is hampered.) But even here the act is conditioned by antecedents. Freedom in this sense is autonomous spontaneity and creativity.
To go back to where we left off – my brain decides for me before I am conscious of making the decision. So what? I am walking along some uneven path; I trip and am about to fall down; my body makes the necessary adjustment and regains for me my balance; I wouldn’t for my life be able to explain how it did it. I step into the street to cross; a speeding car comes rushing; I step back in time to avoid being knocked down. I take a sip of water; I swallow; I am completely unaware of the very many and highly complex muscle movements involved. Was it my body that did all that or was it I? The question is fatuous. I am a whole which, when chopped up into segments is no longer I.
Further, none of us human beings is one person. Whether we speak of freewill or of choice, there is always room for the question: Whose freewill or whose choice? It is only the most fortunate of us that have their multiple persons coexisting in relative harmony and cohesion. But even those fortunate ones will often experience the tension and the stress between the needs, the claims, and the longings of their diverse persons, which need not be in conflict but which cannot all be satisfied or all satisfied equally within the essentially limited capabilities of a human individual.
But, it may be said, that is not the issue. The issue is whether my choice is pre-determined. All choice, indeed all behaviour – and on a more fundamental plane, all becoming, is conditioned by antecedents. But the larger question of determinism involves assumptions that cannot be examined here. (See “Free Will as Creativity” in my weblog http://khashaba.blogspot.com
: an abridged version appeared in Philosophy Pathways http://www.philosophos.com/philosophy_article_62.html
). My beliefs, my prejudices, my childhood experiences, my indigestion, and the faces I encountered on my way here, all go into making my choice – but all of that is I and I am all of that. And again I have to stress that it is wrong to confound this with the problem of spontaneity and freedom.
Not only the higher specimens of poetry and imaginative literary creations are creatively spontaneous. In ordinary conversation – be it refined or banal, sophisticated or naïve – we do not stop to deliberate what words to use in constructing the sentences we utter. The raw intent, meaning, or image, emerging vaguely in our mind, unfolds creatively in distinctly formulated linguistic structures. The sentences I utter grow naturally, organically, out of the existent matter: my experience, my acquired thoughts, the input I received last from my interlocutor. My utterances grow out of that matter, yet it is I that give the utterance, and this I is not one with that matter but is something over and above, something transcending, that matter. The I that engages in conversation is the totality that is other than the total content. The I that gives the utterance is a creative agent that does not exist objectively but is the reality apart from which that which exists objectively can have no being. The I is my reality.
Again, thinking is not the best part of us, nor is it what characterizes us as human beings. Our intelligence goes deeper. There is intelligence in a smile that gives encouragement and in a smile that forgives. There is intelligence in the deep breath taken at the sight of a thing of beauty.
Perhaps we would not err greatly if we say that my brain is a computer. I can do things with a computer that I can hardly do with my brain. But there are things my brain can do that a computer cannot do. Yet my brain is not I. My brain cannot say ‘I’. Only I can say ‘I’. This I, like the values, ideals, feelings, dreams, that I know immediately in and only in the I, cannot be given objectively, cannot be subjected to observation or analysis.
What are offered as ‘scientific explanations rooted in the physical world’ are only accounts of occurrences in the phenomenal world and they are only significant for and relevant to the phenomenal world. They have objective validity in the only sense in which there can be objective validity: they are objective because it is the nature of science to deal with objects, whereas philosophy can only look into the subject; its only sphere of vision is the subject.
In the mind-body problem, or the mind-brain problem, the controversy is wrong-headed because it asks the wrong question. The scientific question is, How does this state of things come about?, and science gives the right answer to its question. The philosophical question is, What is mind?, and philosophy answers, Mind is my inner reality. There is no other answer to the question. So far both science and philosophy are within their rights. Philosophy goes wrong when it tries to answer the scientific question and says that the mind is implanted by God or that the mind is there because we have a soul separate from the body. Science goes equally wrong when it tries to answer the philosophical question and says that the mind is such and such processes or such and such chemical or neural or electronic activity. The confounding of science and philosophy is the bane of human culture.
If evolutionary theory, let us day, gives a satisfactory account of the origination of the sense of beauty, does that explain away beauty or the sense of beauty? To say that would be crude reductionism. An objective account does not explain anything (except in an anaemic sense of the term). Beauty is only intelligible as an original dimension of reality, as a reality in its own right.
Evolution, we are told, made the male peacock’s tail beautiful to attract the female peacock. Why is the female peacock attracted to the male peacock’s tail? Not because it makes for survival – that may have been the ‘purpose’ of nature but it is not the ‘motive’ of the female bird. Shall we say the colours trigger certain chemical processes that give the bird satisfaction? Shall we say that the motley colours excite the bird’s curiosity? These may be true objective accounts but they do not explain the satisfaction (= pleasure) or the curiosity. These remain subjective realities. In the end the female is attracted because the tail is attractive – the tail is beautiful because it is beautiful, as Socrates said.
To take the objective account given by science of a certain feeling or emotion as the ‘definition’ of that feeling or emotion may be admissible for clearly specified purposes, provided that we do not equate ‘definition’ with ‘explanation’. A definition not only – in common with the objective account it encodes – exteriorizes, but it moreover abstracts, replacing actualities with tokens.
We run from a bear because we are programmed to run. The fear we experience is a by-product, but it is not reducible to the elements that occasion it. A robot can be programmed to react in the same way, but it would not have the experience unless it is ‘souled’ – which I do not hold to be impossible. What I insist on is that the robot would then have a spiritual life that has a reality the robot’s electrons and molecules do not share.
If we say that the spiritual is the divine that we discover in ourselves, must this be taken to imply that the spirit was injected into an originally spiritless, mindless, inanimate nature? As I see it, while the creationist claim is unjustified, the opposing naturalist reductionism is equally untenable.
We hear of the neurophysiology of spiritual experience and we are told of spiritual experiences artificially produced. We should ask, what meaning do we attach to the word ‘artificially’? If we mean ‘not spontaneously’, we should note that for a human being spontaneity is a relative thing. All our feelings, emotions, passions, whims, are occasioned by antecedent circumstances, near or far. In a sense, my elation at listening to Beethoven’s Ninth is artificially induced. Again, what counts is not the how but the what.
The creationist-evolutionist impasse is generated by the failure of both parties to acknowledge that they are dealing with two incommensurable dimensions of thought. The evolutionists err in failing to see that there is another way of looking at things. The creationists compound this error which they share with the evolutionists by superimposing on it a fatuous world-view. Both creationism and evolutionism or stark materialism are equally inimical to an open-minded humanism and equally injurious to an understanding of the reality of the mind.
When dogmatic religion was debunked and science sought meaning in the objective world where meaning cannot be found, the quest for meaning was baffled. Nobody thought of turning to the only place where meaning originated, the only place where it can be found – within ourselves; for we, human beings, are the creators of meaning and of values. When we lost the God outside we should have turned to the God within us, which was the maker of God in the first place. But between dogmatic religion and reductionist science we were cheated of our inner reality and left soulless.
Indeed, I think that, more than the scientist who refuses to acknowledge the subjective, it is the theologian who regards the I as an existent thing given by another existent thing called God, who does most harm to the notion of the I that I care to affirm and emphasize. My I is my whole being; it is nothing apart from my physical actuality, including, of course, my brain. Of all philosophers it was Spinoza who had it not only right but also most clearly. In one dimension I am God; in another dimension I am Nature. My whole being is a moment in Deus sive Natura. My life becomes so much the poorer when I am forgetful of the dimension of my I that is God. It is in that dimension that I – to resort again to Spinoza – live sub specie aeternitatis, that in fact and strictly speaking, I live in eternity.
D. R. Khashaba