24 February 2009

Imagining the Self (2)

In chapter nine, The Sensory Room, of Raymond Tallis’s book The Kingdom of Infinite Space, under the subchapter The Mystery of the Head-Room, Tallis devotes a few pages to expounding on his Selfhood. How, he asks, do we account for ‘the fact that there is such a thing as ‘the first person’ – the I, here, now – to which all this variety [of conscious experience] is ultimately referred’?

Like the French philosopher Rene Descartes was roughly 400 years ago, Tallis is both puzzled and amazed by this unique human ability to perceive one’s Self, to know oneself as an ‘I’. And like Descartes, Tallis attributes this special power to something outside the body. He makes what is referred to in some philosophical circles as the Cartesian Error; the Mind (the Self) must be separate from the Body (the brain). Thus Tallis dismisses the claim that the mind is, or comes from, the brain as ‘neuromythology’, an overextension by overconfident neuroscientists.

Without… a unifying ‘I’, the brain or mind would simply be a colloidal suspension of unhaunted modules – which is how the cognitive scientist seems to present it. That is why many neuroscientists deny that there is such a thing as a self. If they can’t find it or conceive of it in neurological terms, it can’t exist.

But why do the ‘modules’ constituting our brain need to be ‘haunted’ in the first place? And haunted by what? The mysterious, ineffable Self that ‘unifies’ all those facets of consciousness? I smell a category error here. Tallis presents the Self as a separate component in addition to the other mind parts like memory, thought, emotion etc. But I argue that the Self isn’t just another part acting as the glue of consciousness, binding all the different segments together. Rather, all those segments are the Self. You wouldn’t say that a football team ‘unifies’ or ‘binds together’ the coach, goalkeeper, strikers, defenders and midfielders. All those parts are the football team.

(As an aside, concerning the ‘mystery’ of the Self, I’m stumped by some people’s aversion to mysteries being solved through scientific inquiry. Those who are obsessed with the romantic darkness of mystery to the point where they feel threatened by any rational light that will banish that darkness, I call them ‘enigma maniacs’ or enigmaniacs; they are mad for mystery. Enigmaniacs tend not to like answers that dispel the questions in which they have invested their sense of identity. Kant’s injunction for us to ‘dare to know’ would fail to impress the enigmaniac.)

Tallis’s earnest articulation of his sense of Self-hood simply demonstrates his lyrical ability for description, his power to weave an imaginative narrative of his Self. Most people aren’t able to express their sense of self with similar skill. Yet they would generally be just as capable as Tallis in remembering things, feeling emotions and sensations, thinking thoughts, engaging in habitual behaviour, desiring and avoiding; in short, performing all those aspects of the mind of which imagination is but one. It would be strange to suggest that people who aren’t as imaginative as Tallis have a weaker self-consciousness. Might it be that it is the special curse of reflective and (often correlatedly) imaginative people like Tallis to be saddled with an acute sense of a Self that doesn’t really exist? Perhaps they are like children who have reached an age where they are able to imagine the concept of ‘scary ghosts’ and therefore fear them. Except with the idea of the Self, rather than fear it, philosophers like Tallis become enamoured with the concept to the point of ‘enigmania’.

Tallis accuses neuroscientists of treating the brain as if it were a mere object whose constituent parts can be dissected and studied in order to understand the whole.

Looked at through the materialistic eyes of conventional neuroscience, the brain is just an object in the world, like a brick or a pebble, and it has no intrinsic ownership and therefore offers no basis for the fundamental sense that I am this thing, even less that I am here and now. [author's emphasis]
He charges such a materialist view of the brain as necessarily impoverishing the meaning and value of human consciousness, the sacred Self that philosophers like Tallis venerate. But so what if the brain is simply a lumpy, slimy mass resembling weird grey cheese? So what if human consciousness is simply electrochemical activity across dense neural networks in said cheese? Do these material explanations of consciousness diminish the brain’s glorious complexity and functional grandeur? Does it become less worth having?

To illustrate this point, that the brain doesn’t become less valuable even if we recognise it as a ‘mere’ object, in his book Freedom Evolves philosopher Daniel C. Dennett uses the example of an artificial heart so sophisticated that it performs all the functions of the organic one it replaced.

If your real heart gives out some day, will you spurn an artificial substitute that can perform all the functions of your real heart?
For argument’s sake, let’s say it is virtually indistinguishable from a ‘real’ heart. Now, is this heart any less valuable to its owner simply for being artificial? And if we were to see the owner of an artificial heart as somehow being less human, in whom does the fault lie for that person’s diminishment in ‘human value’? Is it with the artificial heart’s ‘fakeness’, or our undue reverence for abstracts like ‘realness’? Dennett asks

Do you… advise diabetics to insist on ‘real’ insulin, instead of the artificial stuff? …At what point does love of tradition turn into foolish superstition?
It is likewise with the brain and the consciousness emanating from it. If this marvelous thing called human consciousness does indeed spring from a purely material source, a ‘mere object’ called the brain, does it make consciousness any less amazing, or less precious? Less worth having? And if we stubbornly answer ‘yes’, then perhaps like someone who would say that the owner of an artificial heart is not fully human, an undue reverence for abstracts like ‘realness’ and ‘Self’ has blinded us from seeing their utter irrelevance.

Miracles can come from the merely material. Mechanistic Man is no less wondrous a creature than the fictional Soul Man many people seem to prefer as a self-description.

Tallis’s skepticism towards science’s claims of having all the answers does have some merit. Scientists aren’t by definition paragons of truth and virtue. There are many who, for various reasons, engage in unscrupulous acts like fudging facts and data to meet a desired outcome, exaggerating results from experiments and studies, leaping to conclusions without supporting evidence, inferring causality from mere correlation, and other such misdemeanors. Yet such regrettable actions are in the minority. Scientists are on the whole passionate about discovering knowledge – that is, justified true belief. The practice of science in itself contains a rigorous system of checks, balances and self-correction to ensure that the quest for knowledge isn’t compromised by unethical behaviour. Intellectual honesty is acknowledged by all serious scientists to be the fuel of their efforts, without which the journey of discovery would flounder.

With regard to the claims made by neuroscientists – claims that Tallis finds hard to swallow – those working on the cutting edge of the field like Dr Susan Greenfield do try to debunk any misconceptions the general public may have about the brain and consciousness. In her book ID, which explores the effects of popular culture and virtual entertainment on the brains – and thus minds – of people, especially children, Greenfield scatters throughout her book this cautionary disclaimer (which I’m paraphrasing): there is no single part of the brain that is responsible for a specific sensation or neural activity. There is no one section that only deals with, say, pain, and another only with sight, or speech. Greenfield tells us that things are more complicated than that.

Also, evidence has recently emerged that a rush of blood to a certain brain region isn’t necessarily linked to neural activity there. This has implications for results from functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans, which measure blood flow in the brain for supposed neural activity. Aniruddha Das from Columbia University in New York, who was part of the team that made this discovery, said that ‘care needs to be taken in future to ensure that... misinterpretation does not lead to errors’.

Greenfield’s and Das’s candor gives the lie to Tallis’s conviction that scientists are out to render a simplistic, black-and-white picture of the brain and consciousness. Instead, neuroscientists like Greenfield and Das - who in their work are constantly coming up against the tangled mess of the brain - are bluntly calling it like it is, without trying to neaten things up just so they can explain away the frustrating complexity. But neither do they conjure up agreeable myths when real, concrete answers are available.

Philosophers of a skeptical bent often need to be reminded of this: not having satisfying answers to certain questions at present doesn’t mean that no satisfying answers will ever emerge. Just because neuroscientists are (correctly) urging caution now and not jumping to conclusions without due evidence, that’s not to say that in the future they won’t find a swathe of solid, certain ground in those previously murky parts of the swamp. The warning sign ‘Do Not Assume’ can then be pulled up and removed to another part of the swamp still veiled in fog. That’s just how science works.


No comments:

Post a Comment