Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mind v. Matter

Raymond Tallis reviews a couple of books on mind and materialism for the Wall Street Journal. One of the books is titled Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter by Terrence Deacon the other is by Michael Gazzaniga titled Who's In Charge? Tallis begins his column with this:
The world of academe is currently in the grip of a strange and worrying epidemic of biologism, which has also captured the popular imagination. Scientists, philosophers and quite a few toilers in the humanities believe—and would have the rest of us believe—that nothing fundamental separates humanity from animality.

Biologism has two cardinal manifestations. One is the claim that the mind is the brain, or the activity of the brain, so that one of the most powerful ways to advance our understanding of ourselves is to look at our brains in action, using the latest scanning devices. The other is the claim that Darwinism explains not only how the organism Homo sapiens came into being (as, of course, it does) but also what motivates people and shapes their day-to-day behavior.

These beliefs are closely connected. If the brain is an evolved organ, shaped by natural selection to ensure evolutionary success (as it most surely is), and if the mind is the brain and nothing more, then the mind and all those things we are minded to do can be explained by the evolutionary imperative. The mind is a cluster of apps or modules securing the replication of the genes that are expressed in our bodies.

Many in the humanities have embraced these views with astonishing fervor.
Indeed. Materialism is the reigning religion in academe today, but judging from what Tallis writes in his review, that may be changing. Setting aside his curious insistence on making it clear that he himself is definitely not an apostate from Darwinian orthodoxy he makes many interesting observations. Some are those of the authors he reviews and some are his. Here's a sample:
A brain in good working order is, of course, a necessary condition of every aspect of human consciousness, from basic perception to the most complex constructed sense of self. It does not follow that this is the whole story of our nature—that we are just brains in some kind of working order. Many aspects of everyday human consciousness elude neural reduction.

Biologism commands acceptance in the humanities because it is promoted or endorsed by scientists whose prowess in their chosen field seems to qualify them to pronounce on what are essentially philosophical questions. Thus it is notable when two books written by neuro-biologists of the greatest distinction are nonetheless critical of the simplifications—both scientific and philosophical—of biologism. Both authors look outside the conceptual frameworks upon which biologism depends.

"Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter"... does not deliver on its subtitle ... is long, slow-moving and peppered with neologisms, but it is infinitely preferable to the flashy tomes of the Professors of Legerdemain who assure us that the mind could emerge from matter in the brain "just like that" simply because "the brain is the most complex object in the world."

Along the way, Mr. Deacon demolishes fashionable computational theories of the brain. Anyone in the future who is tempted to assert that "the mind is the software of the brain" should reflect on Mr. Deacon's observation that the apparent agency of a computer "is just the displaced agency of some human designer." The use of simplistic analogies to make the mind look machine-like and machines mind-like and thereby solve the mind-brain problem should never again pass unchallenged.

One of the founding fathers of cognitive psychology, Jerry Fodor, has argued that to solve the puzzle of conscious experience "there's hardly anything we may not have to cut loose from." Mr. Deacon has not cut loose from quite enough yet—in particular from the notion that matter organized in a certain way must be mindful—but he has started to reframe the terms of the discussion. His 500 densely argued pages testify to his awareness of the intractability of the problem.
Having considered Deacon's book in far more detail than I have suggested here, Tallis turns to Gazzaniga's work:
Unlike many in his profession, Mr. Gazzaniga is philosophically sophisticated. He believes that, while the brain "enables" the mind, mental activity is not reducible to neural events.

If the mind really were identical with activity in individual brain-bits, which were themselves machines causally wired into the material world, free will would be an illusion. One purpose of Mr. Gazzaniga's book is to reveal the implications of this mistaken notion for one of the most sinister of the neuro-prefixed pseudo-disciplines: "neuro-law." Neuro-law aims to replace the untidy processes of the current judicial system with something more biologically savvy. Isn't criminal behavior the result of (abnormal) brain function? If so, the brain, not the defendant, should take the rap.

Mr. Gazzaniga will have none of this, and he deplores "neuroscience oozing into the courtroom." The author savages the uncritical use of neuro-technology in court and laments that juries and judges have little idea of the shakiness of the connections between minor abnormalities on brain scans and the commission of a particular crime. Neuro-law is not merely premature; it overlooks the fact that, as Mr. Gazzaniga says, "we are people, not brains," and brain scans tell us little about our personhood.

Mr. Gazzaniga's incomparable knowledge, along with his mastery of the art of making things clear without oversimplifying them, means that "Who's in Charge?" is a joy to read. Is his book, along with Mr. Deacon's, an indicator that the mighty edifice of philosophically naïve conventional neuroculture is starting to fall apart? Are these books harbingers of a better future in which the task of trying to make sense of what we are is not hampered by a reductive scientism that identifies us with the activity of brains evolved to serve evolutionary success? I hope so. While we are not angels fallen from heaven, we are not just neural machines. Nor are we merely exceptionally clever chimps.
One may be forgiven for thinking that even Darwinians are bailing on strict materialism. Matter and force, it is coming to be recognized, simply leave too much about the world unexplained. The mysteries of human consciousness as well as the mysteries of quantum physics point to not only the existence of mind, but also, perhaps, its ontological pre-eminence.