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.

Consciousness As Mental, As Physical

It’s been argued that a scientist who grew up in a black and white room and never saw the color red could learn everything there is to know about the physics of light and the physiology of the human body, including what happens in the brain when someone sees red, but not know what red looks like. Presumably, a blind scientist with the same training would be in the very same position. Likewise, a deaf scientist could know everything about the physics and physiology involved in hearing a violin but not really know what a violin sounds like. This is supposed to show that there is something in the universe beyond the reach of the physical sciences: the mysterious mental phenomenon of consciousness.

“Mental” is a word I haven’t used much (or at all) in writing about consciousness, yet consciousness is clearly a mental phenomenon if anything is. But what does it mean for a phenomenon to be “mental”?

The obvious answer, although it’s not very helpful, is that “mental” means “not physical”. But what does that mean?

An exchange of letters I referred to last month between the philosopher Thomas Nagel and a professor of bioengineering, Roy Black, tries to deal with the question. Prof. Black criticizes the idea that “nonphysical factors” are involved in consciousness:

As is frequently noted, the physical basis of life itself used to be just as mysterious as consciousness, and it’s now well explained by biochemistry and molecular biology, without nonphysical factors. So although science as we know it doesn’t explain the link between neurons and consciousness, why expect the link to be “nonphysical” rather than “novel physical”? What is a nonphysical factor, anyway? If the dark energy propelling the expansion of the universe, the strong force holding atomic nuclei together, etc., etc., are physical, do we really need anything more exotic?

… Lots of things in biology—like the development of an organism from an egg—seem impossible, until we stretch our imagination to conceive of simple precursors and mechanisms that could have been worked on by natural selection over billions of years. To quote one of [the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s] nice lines, “evolution is a process that depends on amplifying things that almost never happen.” We need to determine what “thing,” what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose. What would a precursor of “feeling like” be? That’s what we need to stretch our imaginations further to figure out.

Prof. Nagel responds, but his response is based on an assumption:

The difficulty is that conscious experience has an essentially subjective character—what it is like for its subject, from the inside—that purely physical processes do not share [how does he know this?]. Physical concepts describe the world as it is in itself, and not for any conscious subject….

I agree with Black that “we need to determine what ‘thing’, what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose.” But I believe this will require that we attribute to neurons, and perhaps to still more basic physical things and processes, some properties that in the right combination are capable of constituting subjects of experience like ourselves, to whom sunsets and chocolate and violins look and taste and sound as they do. These, if they are ever discovered, will not be physical properties, because physical properties, however sophisticated and complex, characterize only the order of the world extended in space and time, not how things appear from any particular point of view [again, how does he know this?].

Nagel’s assumption is that a purely physical process cannot have a subjective character (it cannot “feel like something”). It cannot be “how things appear” from a particular point of view. But if consciousness is a physical process, it does have a subjective character. In that case, how things feel or appear are indeed physical properties of a process that occurs in space and time (it happens inside your head when you’re conscious).

Here’s my take on the mental/physical distinction. Nobody knows what the universe contains at the most fundamental level (or if there is a most fundamental level). But suppose that quantum field theory is correct and, quoting Prof. David Tong of Cambridge University (who I wrote about earlier this year):

The best theories we have tell us that the fundamental building blocks of nature are not particles but something much more nebulous and abstract. The fundamental building blocks of nature are fluid-like substances which are spread throughout the entire universe and ripple in strange and interesting ways. That’s the fundamental reality in which we live. These fluid-like substances, we have a name for, we call them “fields”.

Furthermore, when the fields ripple or are agitated in certain ways, we get sub-atomic particles. An electron, for example, is a kind of ripple in the electron field.

So when I say that consciousness is a physical process, what I’m saying is that consciousness is at bottom constructed from one or more quantum-level fields – or whatever the fundamental building blocks of the universe are – that somehow interact with the quantum-level fields – or other building blocks – from which everything else in the universe is constructed. Maybe consciousness involves a kind of fundamental field that physicists can’t measure or detect yet. Maybe it involves a new kind of interaction between fundamental fields that physicists already know about.

But consciousness seems to be part of the natural world in the same way other physical phenomena are. And because it’s part of the natural world – not a kind of free-floating spiritual or supernatural substance or phenomenon – consciousness can represent other physical events and processes outside itself. Consciousness being part of the world is why we can be consciously aware of our bodies and the world around us.

“Mental”, therefore, refers to what happens in our minds, but at bottom mental phenomena are physical phenomena. Consciousness, like gravity, digestion and baseball, is one of the things that happens in the world. In other words, the “mental” is a subset of the “physical”. Or so it seems to me.