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Neurophilosophy of Consciousness

Some Responses

Seth Miller


The Feeling of What Happens – by Damasio

There is a lot to respond to in this week’s readings.  There is much about Damasio that seems to be worth taking up, and his approach to the ‘problem’ of consciousness has many improvements over other models which do not adequately build a relationship between consciousness and the body.  Unfortunately, he (along with most other authors whose background when speaking of consciousness is primarily ‘scientific’) still seems to buy into a very entrenched series of assumptions which have the effect of limiting the types of statements which can potentially be entertained as valid to those that already fall within the boundaries circumscribed by those assumptions.

Specifically, this comes out in a paragraph where Damasio wonders:

Why should there not be bodiless persons on our midst, you know, ghosts, spirits, weightless and colorless creatures?  Think of the space savings.  But the simple fact is that such creatures do not exist now and nothing indicates that they ever did, and the sensible reason why not is that a mind, that which defines a person, requires a body, and that a body, a human body to be sure, naturally generates one mind.  A mind is so closely shaped by the body and destined to serve it that only one mind could possibly arise in it.  No body, never mind.  For any body, never more than one mind. (p.143)

It is in statements like this that something of the more fundamental nature of Damasio’s thinking becomes evident, and upon which much of his conclusions are based.  Ignorance does not constitute proof or even evidence of any kind.  Neither does stating something as a fact make that fact correct.  Because Damasio, for reasons that are not entirely included in his explicit words, maintains a belief that the self, and consciousness, are nothing more than a complicated series of neural processes, the alternatives to this belief are inherently discounted (sometimes with supportive reasoning, mostly without).

If you are on a raft and see only water all around you, it might be tempting to think that the entire world is water.  But this ignores the fact that the raft got there somehow.  Damasio sees the water and imagines that the raft is actually built out of the water.  If he could extend his vision farther, he could penetrate the clouds and spot land.  Although this is only a metaphor it tries to express the fact that we are kept afloat by the very thing we take for granted in trying to show how consciousness is built from (is) the body: consciousness itself.  The only thing that can address consciousness is consciousness; the only thing that can explain thinking is thinking.  Trying to explain thinking in terms of neurons, consciousness in terms of the body, can never address what later results in precisely the “hard problem” identified by Chalmers: the fact that no amount of ingenious linking of concepts will be able to show how concepts are purely states of the body.  We should not fool ourselves that just because the content of a concept posits (and even shows much evidence for) the arising of consciousness as a particular outcome of brain states, that the concept itself is physical, precisely because the content rests upon the fact of the concept itself, and relies upon this foundation in order to even hold the content that “concepts are physical”.  In other words, we must start from the concept itself.  In any epistemology, thinking must be first – it is what does the explaining, not what needs to be explained.  All attempts at describing likely scenarios for the nature of thinking, cognition, and consciousness, if they begin in confusion, will only end in confusion, even if that confusion seems acceptable (because we can only see the ocean surrounding us).

Don’t get me wrong – much of Damasio’s thinking is quite extraordinary and worth pursuing.  My point has less to do with some of his more clearly neurological and biological ideas as with the underlying background upon which those ideas are extrapolated in ways that must warp to fit the assumptions.  Damasio’s refusal to seriously entertain what lies beyond his present and past experience pulls blinders over what could be a fruitful path that would yield new experiences that would allow his vision to see what he cannot at the moment precisely


Philosophy in the Flesh – by Lakoff and Johnson

This reading was very frustrating.  The authors are trying to say something important about reasoning – that it is embodied.  By this they seem to mean that reason is not just dependent upon the brain, but is actually built entirely out of our physical bodies, both in form and content.  “The very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment.” (p.4)  The authors also state that “What we call concepts are neural structures…” (p.19), which can only be taken to mean that ultimately the authors are essentially materialists when it comes to the question of mind and consciousness: somehow the mind is actually the brain.  Apart from not specifically stating this at the outset, we can let this stand, and see whether the rest of their discussion is sensible in light of this assumption.

If we take their major point simply as negative one, a marshalling of evidence against the view that reason is purely disembodied, and that “the contents of mind, the actual concepts, are not crucially shaped or given any significant inferential content by the body” (p.37), then I can heartily agree.  In fact, this point seems so obvious as to make the author’s attempts at showing it to be inadequate seem overzealous.

Their position is made somewhat clear in the following statement:

The claim that the mind is embodied is, therefore, far more than the simple-minded claim that the body is needed if we are to think.  Advocates of the disembodied-mind position agree with that. Our claim is, rather, that the very properties of concepts are created as a result of the way the brain and body are structured and the way they function in interpersonal relations and in the physical world. (p.37)

This seems clear enough at first.  Yet to claim that “the embodied-mind hypothesis therefore radically undercuts the perception/conception distinction” (p.37), is simply incorrect.  Rather, the embodied-mind hypothesis rightfully brings attention to the fact that there is a relationship between the conceptual and the perceptual, which must be clearly and carefully addressed if we are to not abstract reason from itself (ala Descartes, et. Al).

In other words, the two statements in the long quote above which are made out by the authors to be somehow contradictory are in fact complementary.  Thinking begins as something that is dependent upon the physical brain.  At the same time, the physical brain’s limitations provide a morphological scope for the formation of concepts, precisely because our concepts evolve in concert with our percepts.  To claim that the second insight negates the first is an instance of what Whitehead would call a fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

The authors themselves, although uncognizant of this fact, implicitly embody this insight in their speech, which necessitates a nod to the first insight in order to not sound overtly silly.  For example, take the following series of formulations, all from the same paragraph (p.37), with my italics added for emphasis:

“…basic level concepts depend upon motor movement, gestalt perception, and mental imagery, which is carried out in the visual system of the brain…”

“…our color concepts are intimately shaped not merely by perception as a faculty of mind but by such physical parts of our bodies…”

“…spatial concepts like front and back are not characterized by some abstract, disembodied mental capacity but rather in terms of bodily orientation.”

Were the authors to try to remain true to their original formulation as such, the previous statements should look more like this:

“…basic level concepts are neural structures which require the same parts of the brain as those responsible for motor movement, gestalt perception, and mental imagery, all of which are themselves ultimately neural structures in the visual system of the brain…”

“…our color concepts are neural structures which arise as physical structures in our brain through purely physical evolutionary processes which include the interaction of our bodies and the environment…”

“…spatial concepts like front and back do not characterized by abstract, disembodied mental capacities, but are in fact neural structures which include the parts of the brain active in determining bodily orientation.”

Ultimately, to be true to the original position, the authors must essentially give up any formulation that links concepts to something other than what is purely physical.  In other words, they must give up the concept of the concept!  The word itself is entirely misleading.  By their formulation, so is perception.  If the authors state that the perception/conception distinction is radically undercut, then by all means, undercut it fully, and show us something more workable in its place!  This they cannot do, so they simply try to explain why ‘concepts’ (in the form of what they call basic level concepts) are a nice evolutionary adaptation, despite not existing in any actual sense.  If this doesn’t make you think something is amiss, then we can go one step deeper.

What the authors do not seem to recognize is that their entire formulation already rests upon their faculty of cognition.  Rather than show how cognition is essentially what the brain does, including determining the content of the particular concepts that arise (note the necessarily paradoxical language in which this must be framed if we are to believe the authors!), the authors demonstrate their own faculty of cognition by formulating a model which has exactly the same underlying philosophical basis that they are trying explicitly to move beyond.  More explicitly: the authors take as their starting point, implicitly, a distinction between percept and concept as something requiring explanation, yet try to build up a model in which precisely that distinction is made out to be epiphenomenal.  Their attempt to “flesh out” the concept of the concept until the concept becomes purely physical, in accord with their materialistic bias, merely demonstrates their practical inability to come to terms with their own conceptual edifice.  The authors are not able to give up the tenaciousness of the difference between percept and concept, and yet, because they have no basis upon which to approach this distinction (coming, as seems to be the case, from a materialist point of view), end up with language which obfuscates not only their explicit point of view, but the underlying problem as well.

The major issue lies in the fact that the authors fall prey to precisely the game they are trying explicitly to avoid, by in fact placing reason in a position above that of what must first be recognized as the basis for reason itself (and this is not the body as understood by the authors).  They recognize that the dis-embodied reason of the previous age was itself unfounded because it looked only within its own boundaries, but erroneously assume that a) therefore the opposite of this position is better (i.e. embodied reason), and b) that because the previous formulation of dis-embodied reason went too far, that reason must be absolutely dependent upon and coincident with neural structures (i.e. materialism).  But the reason they use to come to these conclusions is itself the very type of reason which they are trying to throw out.

What is required to overcome this foundational problem lies in the formulation of an epistemology which can properly understand itself.  In order to come to such an epistemology, we cannot at first begin with the kinds of assumptions which the authors implicitly have, but must work to penetrate the very basis of reason, truth, and knowledge itself.  But this is a topic to be explored another time.


Mind Wide Open – by Steven Johnson

There were a lot of interesting ideas in the reading this week.  A striking one is the idea that “neurons that fire together wire together”.  Although this is usually invoked to explain many aspects of associative memory, it also seems to have another, more active consequence when taken together with the idea of intention (an idea so far not explored to any real extent in our readings).

Assuming that there is such a thing as intention, and that it is not epiphenomenal, a useful series of avenues for self-change open before us.  At a very basic level we can see the wisdom of what anyone who endeavors to excel in sports, music, or martial arts would recognize as a basic technique: visualization.  We know that during visualization – a loaded word, as it can include senses other than vision as well – the brain fires in patterns that are extremely similar to those that appear when actually performing a specific task or movement.  This behavior is not relegated to physical actions, but can be extended to include moods, even ideas.

This has been borne out in a study (admittedly, this is hearsay) that showed that smiling helps to improve mood – just the physical act itself, the muscle activation.  The subtleties of the supposed cause and effect relationships here are probably very subtle, but a basic treatment may go something like this:  because the feeling of happiness and smiling have been (for whatever reason) ‘wired together’ in the past, by activating the neurons which cause us to smile, the associated neurons which are associated with our feeling of happiness are also more likely to fire.  This is a little bit like a trick: the neurons that fire when we are happy are not (seemingly!) directly under our conscious control, but our smiling is. 

At least, some of our smiling is.  Apparently it is possible to tell a ‘fake’ smile from a ‘real’ smile by analyzing just which muscles are activated.  But in theory, one can train oneself to smile authentically, even when one is not feeling particularly happy.  Perhaps this is one reason why it is possible to ‘cheer people up’ – by getting them to smile at something (anything), you are effectively adding weight to the possibility that their associated ‘happy neurons’ will activate along with the smiling ones.

In some sense, thought of in another way, what this means is that all our actions have a certain kind of neuronal momentum.  By performing an action, you are automatically strengthening the interrelationships between the particular cluster (or network) of neurons that fire in order to perform the action.  In other words, the next time you perform the action, it should be slightly easier, as you have had a little bit of practice.  But taken with the previous insight, this means that now you have a neuronal cluster which may potentially be stimulated into action by the activation of a subset of that cluster (which is itself part of other clusters): smile to make you feel happy.

In other words, the amount of actual intention required to actually produce the action goes down with time and ‘practice’.  This is interesting because it has very large ramifications.  But one that has not been very well explored in our readings (so far) is the very strange situation of moving, life-like visual images accompanied with sound and other types of sensory feedback: things like TV, movies, and video games.  Specifically, the realm of video games is fast becoming more and more immersive, particularly in the haptic realm.

Evolution has not, until extremely recently, ever had the situation that exists now (and will certainly become even more exaggerated in the future), where explicitly false or imagined realities are made real to a large portion of our sense life – particularly our sense of vision which dominates, but also the sense of hearing, with touch fast being incorporated as well.  What does this mean in terms of the neurological insights mentioned above?

First, the brain has trouble distinguishing between all of the following: memory, imagination, and ‘reality’.  Each of these looks quite like the others to a large portion of the brain.  Secondly, brains strengthen connections between neurons that fire together.  Third, intentions have the ability to cause neurons to fire.  Lastly, the brain (speaking from an evolutionary standpoint) has never had to deal with massively detailed ‘false’ realities. 

Taken together, this ideas will have interesting consequences.  The ‘false’ reality of an immersive game, as they become more and more completely immersive, is false to a smaller and smaller part of the brain.  At first, photographs are clearly not really an instantiation of the depicted object: your aunt Matilda isn’t actually IN the picture.  What about a black and white movie of her?  With sound?  What if it was in color, and in 3D?  What if you could touch her?  You see where this is going.

As the immersivity grows, the brain has to rely on increasingly subtle cues to determine the ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ of the experience as a whole.  At some point the immersivity is complete enough that it is very easy to ignore the thin, small part of ourselves that ‘knows’ this is only a ‘simulation’, and to become fully engaged in all respects as if it were real. 

Already the military has understood and capitalized on these exact insights explicitly and with great detail in their wargames, where they hire whole entourages of people to play militant Islamic groups, hospital workers, foreigners, and civilians over long periods in order to ‘make the illusion complete’.  The training soldiers’ brains react to these scenarios exactly as if they were real: with all the associated physiological responses, etc.

Now, because of the way the brain wires itself together, the best predictor of an individual’s future actions are precisely their previous actions.  So the question then becomes: what is the effect of specific types of content on how our brains work?  The government already has an answer that is being capitalized on: to produce better warriors.

However, there is another area in which these insights are put to very good use: medicine.  As a part of an anthroposophical conference a few years ago, I attended a workshop by a neurologist, Sigward Elsas, M.D..  He presented the case of his patient who had suffered a stroke which had paralyzed his right eyelid, causing him to lose the ability to close that eye.  Obviously a problem.

The solution was experimental in many respects: he had the patient learn all about the anatomy of the muscles and associated nerves that cause the right eye to close – in great detail.  Then he had the patient visualize consistently over a period of weeks the actual physiology of the opening and closing of the right eyelid.  As this was happening, he took pictures of the patient’s brain.  When occurred is something that is almost unheard of: neurons from his left eyelid grew across the midline, connected to his right eye in just the right way, and eventually allowed the patient to close the eye.  This is a dramatic result, not only because of the actual recovery, nor even the way in which the brain recovered, but in the method of treatment and the implications it has on our whole understanding of nerve activity and intention. 

In any case, the experiences we provide for our brain have clear and definite results.  We change our brains all the time through actions, whether performative or ‘merely’ internal, and in changing our brains, we change our potential future actions as well, preferentially weighting those that have already been performed before.  This is powerful information, as it does not come with suggestions for its use.  One can be pretty sure that (following the larger pattern of human action as a whole), we, as a species, will explore every possible path to some extent.  What consequences this may have, however, cannot be easily seen.


Response to: BCI’s and Neuroethics

I really agree with Clark’s work in Natural Born Cyborgs which built up the idea of the crosspollination of technology and human experience extending all the way back to the inception of language.  It is very astute to recognize that our conception of human experience is not required to be solely a brain-bound phenomenon, but that it extends into the surroundings in such a way that it cannot be arbitrarily separated from them.

For me, the real issue is not the fact that our very evolution is bound up with the way in which we use technology and the way technology uses us, but rather that upon recognition of this fact, we take steps to bring this relationship into consciousness in a way that is cognizant of its potential long-term effects in a moral sense.  What scares me is that as the human body is understood with more clarity in terms of its physical organization and the correlations between the physical and non-physical aspects (the ‘mind’), our corresponding understanding of the spiritual element of human existence will fall by the wayside in the place where it matters most: in the deeds enacted by those who seek to explore the synthesis of the human and machine.

Even if hard questions are being asked presently by many with respect to the dangers of the technologization of the human being, the present culture and past history would indicate that these voices will eventually be drowned out by the much louder voices claiming all sorts of ‘potential advances’ that are supposed to enhance human life.  The lure of technology is great; in fact we could say that its draw is almost irresistible – regardless of the consequences. 

This seems to be the case because the driving forces behind its pursuit often seem to rest on human lust for power, control, and money – either in those creating the technologies themselves (the scientists and engineers), or more often in those who fund its creation: corporations, the government, and politicians.  There is also an aspect present in some scientists (only a few and hopefully less and less as time moves on) who feel that knowledge should be pursued for its own sake, regardless of its potential applications, either precisely because we don’t know what potential applications exist (which may be extremely beneficial), or because if “we” don’t, then someone else will anyway, so we might as well be the ones to get the credit.

My feeling is that without a more integrated sense of what it means to be human that includes a deeper understanding of our spiritual nature as well physical nature, along with a picture of what this means in relation to other beings such as plants, animals, and the planet itself – in short, a healthy cosmology – we will move globally along paths that lead to futures whose bizarre consequences cannot be understood except according to the paradigm that produces them.  Human curiosity is unbounded, but to the extent that the fulfillment of our curiosity has overt or covert consequences which lead to direct or indirect harm to ourselves and other beings, it is not ultimately justifiable.  Human wants and desires are not, in my view, a reliable guide for pursuit of potential technologies.  Rather, they are, if not penetrated through and through with developed moral consciousness, exactly the source of the problem in the first place.

We must beware of the enchantment of technology; in fact I think that without disenchanting technology, its spell will lead us into areas where our collective moral sensibility will simply not be developed enough to be able to deal with the results in an effective way.  Rather, we may find ourselves involved in a continual catch-up game, where our ability to produce new technologies which begin to give more and more power to untransformed human wishes and desires far outstrips our capacity to see the larger contexts and consequences created by the technologies.  In fact, this is already happening to a large extent.

Clark’s book makes the point that technologies (starting with the development of language and the storage of symbolic meaning externally in the form of sounds, art, and later, writing) and the development of what we consider purely human capacities have always been linked in an entwined co-evolution.  This idea certainly seems to have merit.  Yet there is something very different about the development of technologies today that is, in the scheme of human evolution, quite unique and unprecedented.  Particularly with regard to the detailed penetration of human physiology by medical science, our technologies already do, and will continue to offer, purely technological advances at a faster and faster rate (as has been pointed out by Gleick and others very clearly).  For example, work is already underway to create biological “life” from scratch – from non-living base chemical processes and manipulation of physical substances (ex: Norman Packard’s company ProtoLife).  One attendee of the PopTech conference of 2005 in which Norman presented his vision commented that of all the presentations, Norman’s was by far the most dangerous in its implications.  His response was that it was going to happen no matter what people thought – and that we should develop the technology as soon as possible in order to be able to use it to counter the potentially harmful uses to which it might be put by those less moral than he!  I believe this example sums up my previous concerns sufficiently.

Is humanity going to continue to move towards the fulfillment of the view of the human being as a “natural born cyborg”?  Is this inevitable, as many who are actually working in the technology sector believe?  What will this mean for the evolution of humanity as a whole?  Already Wired magazine has pointed out that a divide is coming into existence between the technologically-enhanced and those who remain ‘merely’ human, and the term post-human is no longer just a science-fiction plot device, but a quickly approaching reality.  It seems to me that without an understanding of the human which includes but transcends the merely physical – a view which must include the spiritual nature of the human being in its very cosmology – we humans will ourselves create and bring into existence the full reality of what lies inherent within the materialist paradigm on Earth as a manifest actuality.  Human wants and desires will lead technology closer and closer toward a fusion of man and machine, with consequences for human self-experience that can hardly be fathomed today – and simply cannot be from within the paradigm that most easily takes hold of and works within the technological world. 

This type of prospect may be ridiculed or downplayed at the moment by some as science fiction ala the Matrix or Star Trek’s Borg, but seems to be, despite its potentially alarmist tone, no less important to seriously consider right now – in the historical moments where humankind is explicitly beginning to manifest the very technologies that make the science fiction science fact.


Response to:  (CH 1, 6 & 7) Why God Won’t Go Away

The authors of this text state in the very beginning of their book the actual root of the problem:

To the traditional scientific mind, of course, these terms [such as ‘sense of timelessness and infinity’] are useless.  Science concerns itself with that which can be weighed, counted, calculated, and measured – anything that can’t be verified by objective observation simply can’t be called scientific.

To the authors, who are looking at neural correlates of mystical experience, this problem becomes one of extending the present methods of science into what normally is considered ‘merely subjective’, until the subjective is transformed through the methods of science into something ‘objective’ which can be therefore ‘verified’ and thus implicitly made valid in some real sense which it must not have been before.  The authors do not, however, recognize that there is another possibility: that the problem doesn’t lie at all in our ‘merely’ subjective experience, but rather in the way it is approached. 

This is a very strange situation: the dogma of science and its unfortunately implicit but not necessary materialism has deemed the burden of proof to lie on the side of consciousness.  Science says something like the following:

“There is a problem with respect to consciousness.  We, the scientists, cannot quite see how it arises from and is essentially a product of physical processes – but we cannot conceive of any other alternative, so all our efforts will be directed to turning consciousness into a physical phenomenon existing in the brain in such a way that it can be described by purely physical laws.  We have certain tools at our disposal which we allow as evidence: essentially anything that we can measure with our material tools.  This is the only sensible program to follow, because every other alternative, of which there are none, leads to mere fantasy and superstition.  In order for something to be real, it must be found so through the application of the scientific method.  Consciousness will only become real when it can be reduced to brain activity – otherwise it is mere subjectivity, the bane of the scientific method and the enemy of truth.  Consciousness, if it is to exist, must exist only inasmuch as it can be found in the physical through measurement and that application of the scientific method.”

Try to point out that physical tools can only measure what is physical and you will likely get the blank stare signifying: “but of course – that’s the only way it can be, after all!”  Of course it isn’t terribly fair of me to quote science in this way – actual scientists can be much more amenable to the subtleties of this dilemma, because they, after all, actually have consciousness.  It is amazing to me that human consciousness has produced a discipline so temptingly ‘real’ that consciousness would rather try to tell itself that it didn’t exist than actually take itself seriously, if that meant changing the fundamental assumptions of that discipline.  Philosophers would call this a ‘performative contradiction’: it is only consciousness that can call consciousness epiphenomenal.  This obvious point has been successfully ignored primarily because without really penetrating into what lies beneath such a statement, it smacks of some kind of philosophical or linguistic game which probably doesn’t “really” have anything useful to say about “reality”.

Extensive work has been done to point out not only the discrepancies at work in the major assumptions of our materialist science, but also to truly move forward with a much more ‘real’ standpoint that is capable of working with phenomena directly while understanding the role of the human in the very process whereby knowledge comes into existence.  Unfortunately, the materialism of the greatest bulk of modern science has such a huge momentum that these efforts are often drowned by the sheer ignorance of the masses to any alternative.  Most don’t even see a need for an alternative in the first place, so won’t go looking.

The question of what lies beyond our present science has been fruitfully addressed and applied to real phenomena, with often spectacular results (for example in long-term weather prediction, see www.docweather.com).  What is amazing is that we don’t have to give up present science in order to embrace the new – we must rather change our relationship to it, our assumptions about what it tells us.  In doing so we are presented with a universe that is much, much, more than material, but is also material, and in which we find ourselves not mere spectators, but active creators.


The Brain and the Inner World – Solms & Turnbull:

It is interesting that they begin the second chapter with a pretty clear assumption that the brain produces mind, and that the brain is primary, but then later work their way into dual-aspect monism, where neither brain nor mind is primary, but something else.  In this respect, dual-aspect monism seems to be a good way to walk the line between material monism and ideal monism.  Yet the question still remains as to the actual nature of this third mysterious ‘stuff’ that is ‘perceived’ as either matter or mind (from the ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ respectively).

They identify the problem well: because we cannot perceive our physical self without representation which necessarily comes through our senses, it seems that we are drawn inevitably into a weird mind-body dichotomy (hence the ‘dual-aspect’).  If we simultaneously accept the epistemological paradigm ala Kant, as Solms and Turnbull seem to do, then the fundamental ‘stuff’ remains noumena forever, unknowable in principle.

As reasonable and ‘logical’ as this series of arguments may seem at first, I believe it is based on some fundamental misunderstandings concerning the nature of the ‘dual-aspects’ of the inner and outer (the same mistakes Kant made in formulating his epistemology).  Without preparing a sufficiently clear context and background, I can only state the basics of how an alternative can be found.  What is most important is to begin with the phenomenological reality of our experience, in order to find a basis for a thinking that is capable of understanding itself.

Solms and Turnbull rightly recognize that there are two aspects to experience: that which corresponds directly to the senses themselves (and hence to external ‘matter’, a topic I can’t get into here), and that which presents itself to us as something over and above what comes to us through our sense life – the contents of our ‘inner’ realm of the mind, which is precisely what we can call the idea, or the ideal content of experience.  There are two ‘givens’: sense-perceptible and ideally-perceptible.  Just as the eye is an organ co-evolutionary with light and thus suited to its perception, the brain is an organ co-evolutionary with the idea, a non sense-perceptible reality, and is suited to its perception.  The organ of the eye perceives light, and the organ of the brain perceives ideas.

It is the bringing of these two givens together in a lawful way that constitutes the highest function of thinking.  And it is by this process that an epistemology which can address both the ‘external’ and ‘internal’ world must be founded – i.e. the epistemology must explain itself from the inside out; it must stand on its own foundation.  The human being is precisely the type of being in whom the given matter of sense-perception can be brought to its underlying idea in the activity of thinking, which is itself that which bridges the inner and outer.   In this way the thinking human can ‘directly observe’ (contrary to the Kantian formulation adopted by the authors) – where observe means now more than just awareness of what occurs in sense-life, including its completion in the idea through thinking – the ‘underlying unity’ beneath the world and our own consciousness.  This is essentially what Solms and Turnbull can only identify abstractly as a ‘third stuff’.

Dual-aspect monism is thus a bit of a cop-out because it gives up hope of reaching truths about either matter or mind by calling these merely (necessary, because of the Kantian slant) ‘artifacts of perception’.  It posits that we perceive (notice the incompatible language: who is ‘we’? what is the nature of perception? – these it cannot address) a single, mysterious stuff through the ‘human mental apparatus’ as either matter from the outside or mind from the inside.  They are actually the same, says dual-aspect monism in pure abstraction, but in a way and with a nature that is unknowable.  Thus we ourselves become mysteries who are in principle unknowable as well.  This is an unfortunate conclusion that comes from not penetrating the nature of thinking as the act in which precisely this unknowable and unperceivable stuff knows and perceives itself simultaneously.

This also solves the homunculus problem, because in this self-revelatory act, the universe as mind and matter together comes to know itself in the act of the free, thinking human being.  The human being in fact completes the world in this way, by becoming a conscious participant in its becoming from a particular perspective.  No reductionistic infinite regression is required by which some new abstract entity perceives the activity of the brain.  The homunculus problem only arises because of a confusion, inherited from the dualism of the scientific revolution, of the nature of the ‘dual-aspects’ of mind and matter, in which matter in particular is taken away from sense-life and given, through a sort of slight of hand maneuver, ultimate primacy in a way that does not recognize the essential and simultaneous role of thinking.  It is only by starting from the phenomenological reality of experience as having both sense-perceptible and ideal components that a true epistemology can be formulated upon which thinking explains itself.

“A true knowing must acknowledge that the direct form of the world given to sense perception is not yet its essential one, but rather that this essential form first reveals itself to us in the process of knowing.”
– Rudolf Steiner, from Goethean Science


Response to: The Brain and Health

It is wonderful that such a field as “psychoneuroimmunology” can exist, even if it is considered “messy” by the scientific community at large, and has edges which bleed into the fringes of present science.  What is interesting to me about this field is that it provides a contemporary picture of how incapable our scientifically-oriented culture is of directly approaching the phenomena of health and disease. 

Most of the field of PNI is embedded squarely in the medical research camp, where the goal is to understand the processes and relations between the human nervous and immune systems.  But (even from its inception) the field could not ignore that in addition to these two systems a third must be included: the psyche.  For some this may be because, as materialists of one stripe or another, the bulk of scientists take the view that somehow the psyche (including consciousness, emotion, etc.) is the manifestation of physical processes occurring in the brain and nervous system.  Others have been attracted to the field because it seems like precisely the area in which the psyche may in some sense be vindicated from a purely materialistic view and given a more important footing with respect to its physical processes from a scientific standpoint.  Thus, the content of the field of PNI leads those involved to consider, for example, that states of health and disease are fundamentally influenced by elements of our psyche: particularly our expectations and emotions. 

This is a subtle reversal of what a materialistic science, dependent upon its material conception of cause and effect, must ultimately conclude: namely that the “psychic” processes are results of and in fact are no more than physical processes rooted in the complex material of the human body.  In this sense, the field of PNI includes and attracts people who are approaching the phenomena of health and illness from different sides which are not easily reconciled.

Yet, despite the ability of researchers in the field of PNI to speak openly about the role of psychic processes in health and disease, there is an interesting fact which must be considered.  This fact may seem to be inconsequential to those who are active in this field, or it may be noticed but regarded as simply “the only way things can be”.  It seems to me that this fact actually points to a great mystery which, if understood as such, would act as a signal to the medical and scientific communities, pointing the way beyond a materialistic medicine towards one which is truly human.

The fact under consideration is the following: the studies which support the conclusion that psychic states actively influence the health or disease of an individual – all the way into the material body – are ultimately stochastic in nature.  Something is hidden in these studies, something like an uncontrollable variable, which necessitates their reliance upon statistical analyses for validity.  In other words, we are unable to understand in any given case the reason for the success, failure, or effect of a treatment, therapy, or process.  For some reason, when approaching the phenomena of health and illness, we find ourselves only able to make conclusions based upon a method which precisely, by its very nature, excludes the individual in favor of the statistically significant group.

What does this fact tell us?  It tells us that despite the best efforts of our scientific age, endowed with the latest technologies, we still do not understand very much about the real nature of health and illness.  This fact is actually widely recognized in the medical community, yet is very rarely spoken of or printed publicly.  To the extent that this is understood, the impression is given that our science will one day, through understanding each individual’s genetic code and present body, be able to deliver perfectly tailored medical treatments that will work with almost flawless results – at least in the sense that the results will be perfectly understood in a material sense, whether or not they lead to what would be considered a truly healthy state.

This dream rests on the mechanization of the concept of health – its physicalization.  It (ultimately) requires that health be reduced to a series of algorithms which, by starting with “the facts of the physical body” in a given individual, leads to a uniquely tailored treatment.  But such a treatment can only be thought of as arising out of the principles of cause and effect in the material world, where any specific outcome arises because of a manipulation of physical elements.  This is the case because our science is not yet capable of directly approaching non-physical events or processes, due to its reliance upon particular interpretations of what constitutes ‘objective evidence’: things that can be weighed, measured, or numbered.

The scientific and medical program that follows from this, if it maintains its foundation, can only approach human health from the outside, as it were.  This is not a problem for the science, because its basic tenet is that this is the only possible way to achieve reliable results – precisely because those results, which are “objective”, can be utilized by others according to the algorithm, without having to have any other information.  What this means is that the program could be seen as successful when in any given case of human pathology, if the physical facts were known, then anyone who could follow the algorithm of treatment specified for those particular facts could engineer a healthy state.  In such a case, no inner understanding is required, and no human understanding is required; medical care could be determined by a computer. 

If this program is successful, the tendency will arise more and more strongly to believe that what it means to be human is essentially to have such-and-such a physical configuration, and that art, culture, morality, etc. are all consequences of the particular physicality of the human form.  Great amounts of effort have already been poured into the elaboration of just such a program, beginning in the Enlightenment and continuing ever since, but with greater and greater precision and detail.

This is not to imply that such a program is bad in itself, or should not be pursued.  In fact I think there is great benefit in exactly this approach – but not solely in this approach.  Rather, the ‘facts’ we learn about the human body in its physical sense should be complemented with research that seeks a wider understanding that includes non-physical elements which can still be experienced and brought to light in such a way that they uphold the basic tenets of objectivity in that they are reproducible and have predictive and explanatory power. 

At the moment, the practice of medical care and medical science includes factors which work to balance the tendencies of mechanization, but primarily in an unfocused and often unconscious way, simply by virtue of the fact that medicine and science are still practiced by actual humans.  The fact that so many studies concerning the etiology of health and disease can only be statistical in nature is interesting, and can be seen in two ways.  The first is that this situation will be remedied by a better understanding of the physical aspects at play in any given individual case – and this is of course true!  On the other hand, this can be understood also as a call to approach the idea of health and illness in an expanded way which also seeks to take into account the elements which the field of PNI is recognizing as increasingly important: emotions, psychic states, and the will.  If we can get to the point where we do not require these to be physical, but turn our attention to them inwardly as well as in their outer nature, medicine will be able to develop a concept of health that is not only more effective, but more useful for creating a progressive human future that promotes health in a way that is itself healthy, rather than through a brute force reduction of the human being to the human form.

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