Thursday, February 04, 2010

Mind and Brain

One of the courses I am taking involves heavy reading on recent finding concerning the way our brains work and how that relates to traditional conceptions of the mind (a la the common Western philosophical distinction between mind and body). For example, the case can be made for how the root of our emotions are not amorphous feelings but actually an important part of how the brain functions in connection with the body. Similarly, there are social aspects to the brain. We have neurons in the brain that respond to social stimuli. Needless to say, this has been an intellectually interesting experience. (aside: if anyone knows of quality apologetic work that attempts to deal with these more recent findings, I would be interested to know about it. I was stunned by how unprepared I was to think about the implications of cognitive science for Christian belief.)

The reason this seems such an important question is in how the function of the brain may or may not relate to consciousness and what we would likely refer to as the soul. If the brain itself is mechanically responsible and/or linked to stimulating the sensations we have and even some of the thoughts that arise out of our subconscious, then where is the soul ultimately lodged? What role can it play and how does it all work?

To a certain extent, this isn’t a new problem. We have had, for as long as there has been faith, needed to deal with certain persons whose physical condition limits (or limits our access to) their cognitive ability. Brain damage is not a new concept and we know that when the wheels stop spinning properly upstairs, it changes the entirety of ones subjective experience. So what do we do about this?

Well, there are a few things I have concluded after four weeks of working on this: (1) there remains a significant gap between what scientists have discovered about the way the brain works and what needs to be accounted for given the way minds and society work, (2) there is still a difference, if not as much as a dichotomy, between mind and brain, and (3) there is an important underlying bias to the whole field of neuroscience.

The gap I am talking about has to do with the very nature of what science seems able to talk about. While neurology can find the parts of the brain that activate emotion, social sense, etc, they do so in a very basic way. While some neurologist (namely the ones I have been reading) seem to push for causal links between what our brain is like and how we act, it is not clear that things work that way. While we have the physical capacity for the things we experience (which in and of itself doesn’t sound like that novel a concept), our behavior and experience actually change the physical constitution of our brains. Though damaging parts of the brain seem to cut out certain functions (i.e. emoting, action-consequence mechanisms, etc.) it seems we might even be able to compensate for this. At best, neuroscience has found the basic mechanisms that are involved with how the brain functions and how they link to the mind; they do not explain the mind.

The second thing I realized is that, given the distance between what we know of the brain and how we experience the mind, while the two might not be distinct things, they are apparently not one thing either. We were talking about this in terms of something called “intersubjectivity.” The idea is that a person has intersubjective experience when they can understand/assume/feel from another person’s perspective. Literally, that they experience another as subject and not simply object. Recent work on something called “mirror neurons” point to a physical ability to experience intersubjectivity. When others around us emote, we can pick up on it at a pre-cognitive level (we feeling it without have to think about it). This is what is happening when a smiling baby elicits a similar response in an adult. There is actually something going on in the brain that recognizes the positive emotion and reflects it. But the problem we run into is that there is much more to intersubjectivity. As I wrote in a question for class: “This seems, in some way, to again dichotomize mind and brain by presenting the intersubjectivity of human minds as a tautology: you are only as intersubjectively attuned as you believe yourself to be?” We see this most clearly in cases where people dehumanize others (a mind action) and then feel no sympathy (apparently a brain action) when they treat others as less than human. There are two levels at play and the upper can overpower the lower. If we deny our intersubjective experience, we seem able to turn it off. This implies that, at best, the research we have done on the brain is far from melding mind and brain into one.

Lastly, there is an underlying belief that necessitates the outcomes mentioned above. Now, I am not just talking about the fact that most scientists would reject the notion of the soul and therefore never look for it in cognitive experience. My point is related, but not the same. When talking about the effect of one thing on another, we usually use the language of “causal direction” (i.e. X causes Y). Given the assumptions that most scientists have for how evolution must have worked in the development of our brains and how our minds are simply and outcome of that process, the causal direction must go from brain to mind. More specifically, the things that happen in the mind must be products of what is taking place in the brain. I will mitigate this by stating that the effect of the mind on the brain is accounted for (i.e. thinking bad thoughts or not developing your mind has physical consequences) but the mind must be accounted for as something that issues from the brain. Whether that is a justified position or not isn’t even important in understanding the simple fact that such a belief will determine the limits of what can be found in one’s scientific studies. Such assumptions of objectivity are the exact limiting factors that can fix a research paradigm in place, a la Kuhn.

This is not meant to debunk neuroscience. The work of science deals with fact. How those facts are interpreted (and they are interpreted) is what is at question. Regardless of whether I have this nailed down (and I likely don’t) this will hopefully raise good questions and an informed consideration of these questions is definitely needed.

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