Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves by Patricia S. Churchland

Patricia Churchland is a well-known professor of philosophy. She is married to another well-known professor of philosophy, Paul Churchland. The Churchlands were profiled in The New Yorker in 2014 in an article called “Two Heads: A Marriage Devoted to the Mind-Body Problem”. They are both associated with a philosophical view known as “eliminative materialism”. Very briefly, it’s the idea that we are mammals, but with especially complex mammalian brains. and that understanding the brain is all we need in order to understand the mind. In fact, once we understand the brain sufficiently well, we (or scientists anyway) will be able to stop using (eliminate) common mental terms like “belief” and “desire” and “intention”, since those terms won’t correspond very well to what actually goes on in the brain.

So when I began reading Touching a Nerve, I expected to learn more about their distinctive philosophical position. Instead, Prof. Churchland describes the latest results in neuroscience and explains what scientists believe goes on in the brain when we live our daily lives, i.e. when we walk around, look at things, think about things, go to sleep, dream or suffer from illnesses like epilepsy and somnambulism. She admits that we still don’t understand a lot about the brain, but points out that neuroscience is a relatively new discipline and that it’s made a great deal of progress. I especially enjoyed her discussion of what happens in the brain that apparently allows us to be conscious in general (not asleep and not in a coma) vs. what happens when we are conscious of something in particular (like a particular sound), and her reflections on reductionism and scientism, two terms often used as pejoratives but that sound very sensible coming from her.

The closest she comes to mentioning eliminative materialism is in the following passage, when she seems to agree (contrary to my expectations given what I knew about the Churchlands) that common mental terms won’t ever wither away:

If, as seems increasingly likely, dreaming, learning, remembering, and being consciously aware are activities of the physical brain, it does not follow that they are not real. Rather, the point is that their reality depends on a neural reality… Nervous systems have many levels of organization, from molecules to the whole brain, and research on all levels contributes to our wider and deeper understanding [263].

I should also mention that the professor shares a number of stories from her childhood, growing up on a farm in Canada, that relate to the subject of the book. She also has an enjoyable style, mixing in expressions you might not expect in a book like this. For example, she says that reporting scientific discoveries “in a way that is both accurate and understandable” in the news media “takes a highly knowledgeable journalist who has the writing talent to put the hay down where the goats can get it” [256].

Here is how the book ends [266]:

Bertrand Russell, philosopher and mathematician, has the last word:

“Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.”

Rock on, Bertie.

Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, etc. by Galen Strawson

This is a book of nine essays by the English philosopher Galen Strawson. The essays aren’t technical. Two were originally published in the London Review of Books; two were published in the Times Literary Supplement.  One is a shortened version of a lecture given at Oxford University.

I don’t think death, freedom or the self actually bother Strawson. What bothers him are certain ideas people have expressed on those topics and a few others. The idea that bothers him the most has to do with consciousness.

What is the silliest claim that has ever been made? The competition is fierce, but I think the answer is easy. Some people have denied the existence of consciousness: conscious experience, the subjective character of experience, the “what-is-it-like” of experience. Next to this denial — I’ll call it “the Denial” — every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green [130].

As far as I know, no philosophers have ever denied that people are conscious of things like feelings. What some of them are saying is that consciousness isn’t what we think it is, and therefore, in some sense, it is an illusion or doesn’t exist. Strawson argues that no serious person has ever said anything as silly.

Strawson also argues that we don’t have free will in the most important, meaningful sense; and that, as a result, we are never ultimately responsible for our actions.

Why does the dear old agent-self decide as it does? … The general answer is clear. Whatever it decides, it decides as it does because of the overall way it is. And this necessary truth returns us to where we started: somehow the agent-self is going to have to get to be responsible for being the way it is, in order for its decisions to be a source of ultimate responsibility. But this is impossible: nothing can be causa sui in the required way [i. e. “the cause of itself”]. Whatever the nature of the agent-self, it’s ultimately a matter of luck [105].

Another philosophical position Strawson argues for is that, as far as we know, all of reality may be mental in some sense. That’s because the most compelling evidence we have for what the universe is made of is what we are most aware of, and that is our consciousness. So he thinks rocks and other inert objects might be somewhat conscious too.

I should mention that some of the essays are more personal. Strawson rejects the idea that stories or narratives about ourselves are necessary to live a full life. He doesn’t view his own life as a story at all. He also thinks that the prospect of a painless death, even within the next few minutes, shouldn’t bother us, except for the effect it might have on other people. It’s not as if we lose anything by dying, since we never had a future something to lose (after all, we weren’t guaranteed that we’d live so many years or have certain future experiences). He ends the book explaining what it was like to be a teenager and a young man in the 60s and 70s when he attended Rugby School (the famous one founded 450 years ago) and Oxford. He traveled a lot and loved rock music and sometimes got into trouble. It was apparently good training for his future career as a philosopher.

The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures by Antonio Damasio

Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist with a philosophical bent. His earlier books were: 

  • Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain
  • The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness
  • Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain
  • Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.

In The Strange Order of Things, he emphasizes the role of homeostasis in making life possible. Here’s one definition:

[Homeostasis is] a property of cells, tissues, and organisms that allows the maintenance and regulation of the stability and constancy needed to function properly. Homeostasis is a healthy state that is maintained by the constant adjustment of biochemical and physiological pathways. An example of homeostasis is the maintenance of a constant blood pressure in the human body through a series of fine adjustments in the normal range of function of the hormonal, neuromuscular and cardiovascular systems.

Damasio explains how, billions of years ago, the simplest cells began to maintain homeostasis, and thereby survive and even flourish, using methods, including primitive forms of social behavior, that are similar to methods used by complex organisms like us. He also emphasizes the role of feelings in maintaining homeostasis. He doesn’t suppose that bacteria are conscious, but points out that they do react to their surroundings and changes in their inner states. He argues that organisms only developed conscious feelings of their surroundings and inner states as nervous systems evolved. He thinks it is highly implausible that a human mind could function inside a computer, since computers lack feelings and feelings are a necessary part of human life. Furthermore, Damasio concludes that culture has developed in response to human feelings. Culture is a complex way of maintaining homeostasis.

I’ll finish with something from the publisher’s website written by the British philosopher John Gray:

In The Strange Order of Things, Antonio Damasio presents a new vision of what it means to be human. For too long we have thought of ourselves as rational minds inhabiting insentient mechanical bodies. Breaking with this philosophy, Damasio shows how our minds are rooted in feeling, a creation of our nervous system with an evolutionary history going back to ancient unicellular life that enables us to shape distinctively human cultures. Working out what this implies for the arts, the sciences and the human  future, Damasio has given us that rarest of things, a book that can transform how we think—and feel—about ourselves. 

I can’t say the book changed how I think about myself. That’s because for some years I’ve thought about myself as a community of cells. It’s estimated that an average human body is composed of some 37 trillion cells and contains another 100 trillion microorganisms necessary for survival. Once you start thinking of yourself as a community of cells, adding homeostasis to the mix doesn’t make much difference.

For more on The Strange Order of Things, see this review for The Guardian and this article John Gray wrote for Literary Review.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Peter Godfrey-Smith is an Australian professor of philosophy who has spent many hours scuba-diving in order to observe the behavior of octopuses and cuttlefish. The book is an attempt to trace the evolution of mental activity from its earliest beginnings hundreds of millions of years ago, when bacteria began reacting to their surroundings. The author believes that mind and consciousness didn’t suddenly spring into existence; they developed gradually through millions of years. But he admits that nobody knows for sure.

Neither do we know what it’s like to be an octopus. We don’t even know for certain that it’s like anything at all. Maybe octopuses go about their business without feelings or anything like consciousness. Godfrey-Smith, however, argues that it’s reasonable to believe that creatures of many sorts feel pain when they are injured. But where to draw the lines (if there are any lines) between bacteria that simply react, animals that feel pain and creatures like us who are self-conscious is a mystery.

Octopuses are especially interesting because our common ancestors lived about 500 million years ago. Octopuses developed complex nervous systems, arranged differently than ours, independently from most other animals, including us. That means, in Godfrey-Smith’s words, “meeting an octopus is, in many ways, the closest we’re likely to get to meeting an intelligent alien”. It’s really too bad that they can’t tell us what it’s like to be them.

I wish the book ended with a summation of the author’s conclusions. I do remember the idea that nervous systems first evolved in order to respond to a living thing’s surroundings, and then to monitor its internal states and control its movements. And I remember a lot about the interesting behavior of octopuses and their close relations, cuttlefish. But I can’t say I came to any solid conclusions about the deep origins of consciousness. If the author reached any conclusions, he should have reminded his readers what they were.

The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions by Alex Rosenberg

The author is a professor of philosophy at Duke University who usually writes books for other philosophers and people who aspire to be philosophers. This one was written for a general audience. Maybe that’s why the book comes on so strong. Borrowing Nietzsche’s phrase, it’s philosophy with a hammer.

I assume Professor Rosenberg chose the title, but it’s a little misleading. Rosenberg derives his atheism from a more fundamental view called “scientism”. He defines that as the worldview according to which “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything”. Unfortunately, there is no word that refers to someone who accepts scientism except “scientist” and you can definitely be a scientist without believing in scientism. Plus, a title like The Guide to Reality for People Who Accept Scientism isn’t exactly catchy. So “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” it is.

One way Rosenberg explains scientism is to say that physics fixes all the facts (except, presumably, for the facts of logic or mathematics). Physics says that all events in the history of the universe, except some at the quantum level, are determined by previous events and the laws of nature. Furthermore, the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy ultimately increases in an isolated system) is the “driving force” behind evolution, which is the result of haphazard genetic mutation. Evolution gave us minds, but our minds are nothing more than the activity of our brains.

Rosenberg concludes that we don’t have free will, introspection is generally misleading and thoughts (whether conscious or unconscious) aren’t “about” anything (since what happens in a neuron can’t be “about” anything — it’s just a tiny input/output device). Furthermore, there are no purposes in nature, even in our minds, and there are no ethical facts. Morality is just another evolutionary adaptation. In addition, we can learn nothing from history or economics, since human culture is constantly evolving.

Rosenberg expresses his conclusions with an air of almost absolute certainty, which is odd for someone who believes in science (maybe it’s not so odd for someone who believes in scientism). For example, he says that “what we know about physical and biological science makes the existence of God less probable than the existence of Santa Claus”. Perhaps he’s being facetious in that passage, but many atheist or agnostic philosophers would agree that God’s existence is a metaphysical question beyond the reach of science. Natural processes don’t count for or against the supernatural. Besides which, there is no evidence at all for the existence of Santa Claus.

The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory by David J. Chalmers

The Conscious Mind is one of those philosophical works that becomes famous because it features interesting arguments in support of implausible conclusions. Chalmers argues for property dualism, the thesis that mental properties are fundamentally different from physical properties. In other words, mental states are not equivalent to, cannot be reduced to, and do not logically supervene on brain states. This is a more plausible view than the traditional dualist claim that there are mental substances (minds or souls) in addition to physical substances, and that the mental and physical substances somehow interact.  

Chalmers agrees that there are psycho-physical laws that relate brain states and mental states, but argues that physical properties and mental properties are ontologically distinct. Maybe this is the correct view, but Chalmers goes further when he begins to discuss a possible fundamental theory of consciousness. He thinks that we should ascribe consciousness to any system that exhibits the same causal relationships as a brain, e.g. automated systems, John Searle’s Chinese Room translation scheme, and Ned Block’s billion minds linked together by radio. Since he views consciousness as a fundamental property of the universe, he thinks that rocks and even sub-atomic particles might possess some simple form of proto-consciousness. He suggests that panpsychism is a real possibility. He also argues that the simplest interpretation of quantum mechanics involves minds branching into other minds, so that each of us is one of a vast set of similar minds, all having split off from our infant selves.

The naturalistic or property dualism that Chalmers advocates, featuring “physical properties, separate phenomenal properties, and a lawful connection between the two”, is certainly worth considering as a philosophical theory of mind. If a property is merely a way of being, maybe mental properties (what it is like to have experiences or to be an X) are fundamentally different from physical properties. However, his views on what systems or objects might be conscious are much less plausible, despite the many ingenious arguments that he offers.  (7/25/11)