Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mind: the brain's experience of itself

The Master and his Emissary

What the book is not about: 

""... the brain is not just a tool for grappling with the world. It's what brings the world about. 
"The mind-brain question is not the subject of this book, and it is not one I have the skill or the space to address at any length. The argument of the book does not depend on holding one view or another. But it is nonetheless legitimate to ask where the author of a book like this stands on it. Hence this very brief diversion.  
"One could call the mind the brain's experience of itself.* " McGilchrist p 19
*"Mind and brain are aspects of the same entity, but completely distinct types of phenomena. The difference is similar to what I take Sartre to mean by his distinction between our inward experience of the body (pour soi) and the fact of the body as a 'thing' (en soi)." (notes p 464)

[Or, perhaps, the distinction between pain and nociception?]
McGilchrist continues:

"Such a formulation is immediately problematic, since the brain is involved in constituting the world in which, alone, there can be such a thing as experience - it helps to ground experience, for which mind is already needed. But let's accept such a phrase at face value. Brain then necessarily gives structure to mind. That would not, however, equate mind and brain. It is sometimes assumed so, because of the tendency when using a phrase such as 'the brain's experience of itself' to focus on the word 'brain', which we think we understand, rather than on the troublesome word 'experience', which we don't.
"All attempts at explanation depend, whether explicitly or implicitly, on drawing parallels between the thing to be explained and some other thing that we believe we already understand better. But the fundamental problem in explaining the experience of consciousness is that there is nothing else remotely like it to compare it with: it is itself the ground of all experience. There is nothing else which has the 'inwardness' that consciousness has. Phenomenologically, and ontologically, it is unique. As I will try to show, the analytic process cannot deal with uniqueness: there is an irresistible temptation for it to move from the uniqueness of something to its assumed non-existence, since the reality of the unique would have to be captured by idioms that apply to nothing else (Scruton 1997 p 367).
"Is consciousness a product of the brain? The only certainty here is that anyone who thinks they can answer this question with certainty has to be wrong. We have only our conceptions of consciousness and of the brain to go on; and the one thing we do know for certain is that everything we know of the brain is a product of consciousness. That is, scientifically speaking, far more certain than that consciousness itself is a product of the brain. It may or may not; but what is an undeniable fact is the idea that there is a universe of things, in which there is one thing called the brain, and another thing called the mind, together with the scientific principles that would allow the one to emerge from the other - these are all ideas, products of consciousness, and therefore only as good as the particular models used by that consciousness to understand the world. We do not know if the mind depends on matter, because everything we know about matter is itself a mental creation. In that sense, Descartes was right: the one undeniable fact is our consciousness. He was wrong, however, most would agree, to think of mind and body as two separate substances (two 'whats')." This was, I believe, a typical product of a certain way of thinking which I suggest is characteristic of the brain's left hemisphere, a concern with the 'whatness' of things. Where it was so obviously a matter of two 'hownesses' in the same thing, two different modes of being (as the right hemisphere would see it), he could formulate this only as two 'whatnesses', two different things. Equally it is a misplaced concern with the whatness of things that leads to the apparently anti-Cartesian, materialist, idea that the mind and body are the same thing. We are not sure, and could never be sure, if mind or even body, is a thing at all. Mind has the characteristics of a process more than of a thing; a becoming, a way of being, more than an entity. Every individual mind is a process of interaction with whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves according to its own private history. 
"The type of monism represented by the scientific materialism most often espoused by neuroscientists is not radically different  from the Cartesian dualism to which it is often thought to be opposed. Its solution to the problem has been simply to 'explain away' one part of duality, by claiming to reduce one to the other. Instead of two whatnesses, there is just one: matter. But Descartes was honest enough to acknowledge that there is a real problem here, one he wrestled with, as is clear from the passage in Meditation VI where he writes:  "... I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but ..... am very closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with it, so that I form with it a single entity" (Descartes, 1984-91b, 'Meditation VI' p 56).  
Phenomenologically speaking, there is here both a unity, a 'single entity', and the most profound disparity; and any account that fails to do full justice to both the unity and the disparity cannot be taken seriously. There may be just one whatness here, but it has more than one howness, and that matters. Though (according to the left hemisphere) a thing, a quantity, a whatness, can be reduced to another - that is to say, accounted for in terms of its constituents - one way of being, a quality, a howness, cannot be reduced to another."
 I love the wave/water analogy: from the notes, p.465, analogy of mind to brain - wave to water: 
"Does the water cause the wave? No. Is it the movement of the water, then that causes the wave? No, not that either. The movement of the water just is the wave... the changing brain states are the mind, once the brain experiences them. And that is where the analogy ends, because there is no inwardness to a wave."

I think what he's saying here is that the mind (and maybe also the brain, body) are more verbs than nouns. Or better yet, just a single moving "thing" ---> interrelating-ed-ness of other also interrelating and ever-changing verbs.

That awful problem with language rears its head, yet again. As soon as that came into existence, language, as soon as humans developed symbolic thought, words that stood in as proxies for actual blobs of existing, i.e. nouns, and conceptualizations of things, also nouns, we started losing our bearings. We started being capable of lies to ourselves and to each other. We started losing our full consciousness, our relating-ed-ness to all that was around us and within us. Oblivious to most of it, most of the time, ordinary people wander about like zombies, lost in categorical thinking, the nouns of life and the behaviour they promote - un-thinking and un-feeling posing in roles -  inhabiting social space, reassuring each other, pretending to be sure of ourselves, acting like we know what's going on in our minds, letting the roles interact with one another instead of being authentic people who merely inhabit the roles, understanding the difference, and interacting with each others' authenticity.  

This is Dec 22, 2012. If there was ever a day for diving deep and just gazing at the mess, in the bright but mercifully short light of a clear glittery white winter day, the shortest day of the whole year, in the darkest season of the year, this is the day. I blame the left hemisphere. It makes up stuff all the time then pretends it's true. Then it hides in a bunker behind all the stuff it makes up and shoots at everything that moves. 

Yes, I know. It's a bleak outlook. Welcome to the inside of my particular brain. I've learned how to cope with and navigate the hall of jagged broken mirrors that is my particular take on life. Sorry, but this is how I see it. This is how my right hemisphere sees things; my left hemisphere has agreed to write it down. It finally agrees, after a lot of whining, balking, disagreeing and side-tracking. It will write whatever it's asked to write, in whatever form the right hemisphere would prefer. I'm fairly certain a lot of it won't be pretty. 

If there was ever a tradition of older single women living quiet lives as atheist nuns, so relieved, jubilant even, gleeful, as if we pulled a fast trick on the world, to have never reproduced, to have enjoyed our physicality but never let nature have its reproductive way with us: and, when forced to interact with the rest of the world, interacting from a place of as much integrity as is possible to find in the midst of external and internal chaos, hoping for nothing but less pain in the world, and peaceful departure from it when this particular way of being self-organized as a human anti-gravity suit is over: if there was such a tradition - and there isn't, other than in this privileged place and time, having been born here by sheer luck instead of in some horrid corner of the world where female physicality/capacity to reproduce is completely controlled and exploited...  I would be its triumphant poster girl. 

We have so not got a clue as human primates. We are so screwed as a species. I hate to think about what we've done to ourselves and the planet, and to each other, most of the time. The only thing one can do, to keep oneself steadied and sane, is refrain from participation in most of it, as much as possible. And I feel like the profession I joined is pretty screwed too, in many ways, but at least it's off to one side, kind of obscure, not really in any strategic target zone. I want it to get back to its roots, some day, if it can. Stop all its silly reliance on categorical thinking and get back to the verbs of being and doing unto others as we would like to be and have things done onto ourselves - get back to the verbs of interbeing, interacting and interrelating. Head away from nociception toward yesiception.

See the following video (about a half hour) for a great discussion by Robert Sapolsky on the dangers of categorical thinking. Very few thinkers are as nimble: he understands human foibles. He points out when using categorical thinking as a mere tool is useful, and warns of the dangers inherent adopting a klutzy categorical approach to life. 

Biology and Human Behavior 

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