Friday, 7 October 2011

Neuroscience, consciousness and polarised views

"Face to Faith" is an interesting little column in the Saturday Guardian. Mark Vernon is an interesting and well-educated man. He said, I reckon, a couple of really dumb things ages ago now, 18:06:11, on page 45, if you're interested enough to research it. Sorry, forgot I had this draft written up and have just re-discovered it. I've tried to make sure it makes any sense it might make without you having read the article.

He was looking at the fact that some neuroscientists over-claimed the significance of their discoveries. He calls this "neuromania," i.e. the idea that our minds are nothing but a collection neurons firing away in our brains. He goes on to say "if you think the brain is a machine, then..." Whoa up there, boy. Thought you were a philosopher? I can't imagine any neuroscientist saying that what they are looking at is a machine. It's a brain. It's alive.

He then goes on to crudify the presentions of neuroscience by scoffing at the images they show us from their brain-scanning equipment, but he gets it right when he implies that part of the problem is the way journalists report on this stuff.

The key statement he makes is that we have a problem: we can't actually experience neurons firing away, we just experience pain, or pleasure, or love. (It's a short step from there to saying that consciousness cannot be illuminated by the work of neuroscientists, though happily, he doesn't go that far - some people do.) But hang on, our bodies do lots of things we can't experience. I can't experience, i.e. feel, my nails growing or red corpuscles doing their stuff in my lungs. I can only feel my liver (not) working when I've over-done the Shiraz. The problem of consciousness cannot be simplistically defined just because we have no awareness of neurons at work. (Just imagine the noise, my deres. Wel I arsk you, worse than Peason banging awaie on the skool piano...).

Vernon gets his balance back towards the end of the column, when he applauds Raymond Tallis as an "ontoligical agnostic," i.e. we simply don't know yet how consciousness works. Well, that's true, and such doubt is often productive. No doubt good neuroscientists make use of such a state of doubt. But it may not  be true for evermore. Vernon also makes a good point when he implies that part of the problem is caused by seeing the brain as a separate all-powerful thing (and this may be an error that earlier commentators on neuroscience used to fall into.)

A brain isn't separate from the rest of us, any more than it's a machine. It's part of a body, and that whole system is a fantastically complex and wonderful set of feedback loops and interactions. There's no reason why consciousness shouldn't be what some neuroscientists speculate it might be - a continually re-constructed and variable state of brain-work that re-makes our sense of who we are as we go along, in relation to the world about us and our inner workings. And this whole set of activities is in constant interaction with the world "outside." Why do Vernons think this is "rampant reductionism?" I think it's so wonderful that were I a Christian, I'd probably say that it was God's masterwork.

This may be part of the problem. Some of the people who attack neuroscientists do so because they think such scientists are over-stepping their brief, as it were. They are blundering into theology, or philosophy, or something that is forbidden to mere reductionist scientists. Don't you dare point that telescope at the heavens, Mr Galileo, or you may find that God isn't where we all say he is! I think such people (not MV, I guess) are nervous that neuroscience is taking the mystery away from human existence, consciousness, who we are. They need a bit of mist swirling around so they can feel their essential belief systems are not too brightly illuminated and threatened by "reductionists" or other seekers after empirical validity.

And so we get foolish polarisations. Religious thinking is this, neuroscience is that. To defend my wriggle-room, I'll slag off the neuroscientists. To get the God-botherers out of my hair, I'll call them superstitious fools. That's a shame, and it matters. Because sensitively-presented and well-interpreted neuroscience seems to me to have so much to tell us about who we are. We should welcome it and listen hard. Not, Mr. V, add to the chorus of oversimplifications.

Any why does Gloria overtax her brain-cell with all this, when her thing is mortality awareness? Because dealing with our knowledge of our own mortality is, I believe, central to living a fulfilling life. In turn, key to this is what our consciousness is, how we know who we are, how this changes. If I can get the most valid view available, whether it's based on neuroscience, meditation, philosophy, psychology, whatever - then I understand what I am and how and why I'm mortal.

Like the Bunyip said, "What am I? What am I?" We may never exactly know, but it's a pretty worthwile question.


  1. Good stuff, GM. I'm with you here. Yes, yes indeed. This is all work in progress; no time for drawing conclusions.

    Have you read neuroscientist Peter Fenwick's stuff on continuing consciousness? Very good, highly recommended. When last I checked his jury was very much out.

  2. Thanks Charles, and for the hat-tip Fenwick-wards, will investigate with usual forensic day....

  3. Ah, yes, I know that one-day feeling, too. We shall be clutching our bucket lists as we arrive in the Hereafter - which, in your case, does not exist, I think, nor, now that I think of it, do I dream of it in my philosophy, either, Horatio. But it's perhaps a somewhat melancholy reflection that even Eternity's not long enough to catch up with one's reading (though my brother assures me that prison is a good place to make a bit of an inroad).

  4. Well, I hope your bro finds/found some consolation in his reading. But "of the making of books there is no end," F Bacon, only about 100 years after they invented the printing press and the whole damned thing went mad. He'd sure blow a fuse nowadays. Would he have a Kindle? But nice though they are, they don't get you through the stuff any quicker.

  5. I bought my wife a Kindle (best present I shall ever buy her; she's a readaholic). She does actually get through books even quicklier than ever -- and I think statistics laid down for our guidance bear this out nationally and even internationally. Do they have Amazon in God's Garden?

  6. Pleased to hear about the stats re KIndle - I love mine. I can reassure you, being on the inside loop as I am, that they definitely have Amazon in God's garden, which is another reason why nothing gets done there: "you may also be interested in..." and of course we will be, instead of re-stringing harps, practising harmony parts for hymns etc.