Friday, July 30, 2010

322. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 6

The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our actions, our most private thoughts, our beliefs. It creates . . . the sense of self. It makes the mind . . . we [may] feel ourselves to be in control of our actions, but that feeling is itself a product of our brain, whose machinery has been designed by means of natural selection.

Professor Colin Blakemore, "Britain's most prominent neuroscientist," as quoted in Why Us? by James Le Fanu (p. 231)

As should be clear from the previous post, I agree with Le Fanu that the above statement is problematic. But for very different reasons. The problem is not that such a "materialist" interpretation violates some basic principle of the sort Le Fanu raises, such as the existence of "subjective awareness," "free will," "human reason" or the "sense of self," which Le Fanu assumes to be well beyond the capacities of a purely evolutionary description to explain. This is certainly not the case. All of them can be easily explained as secondary functions of processes taking place within the human brain, which as Le Fanu himself would be forced to admit, is fundamentally not all that different from the brain of many animals.

As research in cognitive science has demonstrated over and over again, the production of exactly these sort of secondary effects is a large part of how the brain operates. Not through the workings of some simple mechanism, of course, but on the basis of very complex electrical interactions -- which may possibly also involve particle interactions at the quantum level that would be very complex indeed (and also very mysterious, since quantum interactions defy rational explanation).

And the human brain didn't just appear out of nowhere. As Le Fanu would also be forced to admit, it clearly evolved from neurological formations in "lower" life forms. Le Fanu's problem is that he can't imagine how all the wonderful functions claimed for the brain could possibly exist independent of a "mind" or "soul" that would give them meaning. But, assuming an unevolved mind or soul could exist independently of an evolved body or brain, then at exactly what stage of evolution would one expect it to appear? And on what basis would one be able to research such a question? Is such a question even scientific to begin with? And if not, then how are we to think about it? Le Fanu claims he is not arguing on behalf of a religious interpretation, and the term "intelligent design" doesn't even appear in his index. So on what basis is he formulating his objection?

The real problem with the above quotation, as with any attempt to make Darwinian evolution account for every aspect of life, is the problem I raised in the previous post: if all our mental faculties are simply products of the brain, then what is it that observes the brain as it is being studied? Le Fanu quotes a remarkably apt poem by Emily Dickenson: "The brain is wider than the sky/ For, put them side by side,/ This one the other will include/ With ease, and you beside." But if the whole universe, including the "self," can be enclosed within the brain, then what exists outside the brain that makes us aware of it? And wouldn't such an interpretation make the brain the equivalent of a kind of all-knowing, all-seeing God?

What makes science possible is precisely the fundamental duality which for Le Fanu science has rejected. Because science is, at base, a means of representing the real world, and without any means of formulating a clear and coherent opposition (in this case, subject vs. object, or mind vs. brain), there is no basis for representation. Basic linguistics -- or, to be more accurate, semiotics. And the same problem arises for Le Fanu's position as well, based on what he calls "the direct knowledge we have of our spiritual inner selves . . . the reality of my non-material self as a unique, distinct, structured spiritual entity" (228). This is the sort of thing the French philosopher Derrida characterized as "metaphysical presence," i.e. a "mystical" presence felt to exist beyond the reach of the process of represenation, which depends on linguistic/semiotic differences or oppositions. (As I see it, many if not most of the problems faced by modern scientific research, particularly in the realms of cognitive science, but also even physics, are fundamentally problems, not of the determination of what is real, but how certain entities and relationships can be represented. In other words, semiotics is ultimately more fundamental than either biology or physics.)

If the mind cannot be separated off from the brain, as so many cognitive scientists and neurologists insist, then there can be no science of the brain, since there is nothing outside the brain to study it. On the other hand, if we attempt to reinstate the dualism of mind and matter as favored by Le Fanu, we find ourselves unable to proceed scientifically at all, since the mind, as a metaphysical presence completely divorced from the workings of the brain, cannot be properly represented, much less studied.

Have we reached a total impasse? Not necessarily, as I will attempt to explain in the following post.

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