Mind over Matter

I decided to click my computer mouse this morning. Or did I? There is good evidence that my brain anticipated my conscious decision by a fraction of a second or even, as the latest research shows, by up to seven seconds. And here we are at the heart of neuroscience: one of the fastest-growing disciplines of our time.

Already we can spot metaphysical questions. How can I speak of free choice for a decision made first by the unconscious brain? Could I have vetoed my brain at the last moment? Is my conscious decision merely a process of noting what has already been decided?

Neuroscience, or the study of the brain, involves many disciplines from basic biology to the meaning of consciousness, and takes us into the tricky area of the distinction between mind and brain, to say nothing of the theological question of the soul. We can date it back at least to Galen in the second century AD, who first recorded damage in the brains of the corpses whose owners formerly had mental defects. But the modern trigger has been the availability of measuring instruments, culminating in magnetic resonance imaging which can immediately locate and measure brain activity stimulated by external cues.

Already scientists can map the functions of many locations in the brain, which are better described as interacting webs of connections under continual revision, decay and addition. Although as yet we know only a fraction, we are able to identify basic aspects of memory, the senses, even the webs which process morality and religion, and many more. No wonder that some neuroscientists hold the view that we have just a biological brain, with a corresponding body, and nothing more. All is potentially explicable in materialistic terms, and hence presumed to have emerged through evolution. (Of course, other neuroscientists argue that there are elements, such as consciousness, which cannot be explained through conventional scientific methods. They are not always popular with their colleagues.)

But the sceptical conclusion is not surprising. If every function of which we know can be accounted for within the biological brain (even if they are not all discovered yet) what function could be attributed to any agent which is somehow superior to the brain but differentiated from it – and of course would not be a biological entity detectable by any conceivable scanning method?

Some believers may be concerned about this too. What, for instance, is my religious belief worth if it is simply the product of a gene expressed in my brain structure? What credibility can be given to my choices and aspirations if these can all be traced to biological brain function?

Of course neuroscientists acknowledge consciousness (they had better, hadn’t they?) They see it primarily as active in the higher operations such as cognition, long-term planning, memory and language. Such functions are centred in the neo-cortex, lying above the reptilian and mammalian brains whose operations, though essential, are more basic – and are thought to be earlier developments in our evolutionary progress.

But if you ask them to distinguish between brain and mind, you may get some strange answers. I don’t want to put words into their mouths, but I can fairly summarise the explanations which some of them have given.

They acknowledge that we are all Cartesian at heart. That is, we instinctively think in terms of a difference which distinguishes mind from brain. We experience a consciousness of self which overviews the biological. We are able to think about our thoughts with an introspection unique to human beings. We have a sense of self which is distinguishable from our brain although it may work through it – as the violinist makes music through the violin. Even sceptical neuroscientists find themselves speaking in Cartesian language because that reflects their inner experience.

Pushed back against the wall, a neuroscientist may claim that mind is simply another word for brain. Cartesian language may be convenient, they say, but in fact all the functions that we attribute to the mind are to be found in the brain including, perhaps, a higher level of consciousness through which our introspection takes place.

But few neuroscientists are philosophers. If they were, they would quickly see that the difficulty is not answered. We can think about our thinking, and we can think about our thinking about our thinking, and so on ad infinitum. Introspection must ultimately come from outside the biological for the merely material cannot introspect itself. And if it is outside the biological it cannot be caught in a scan.

Consider a couple of instances. First, think about the claim that the moral process is fully comprehended by a network of biological connections localised in the brain. In what way could moral approval or disapproval emerge from this? There would be no point in blame or approval if our behaviour were only the outcome of biological connections.

And that brings us to free will. How does the biological make choices? Without free will the sceptical neuroscientist is obliged to accept the conclusions of his neural circuits. And if those circuits came about through the random mutations of evolution, on what basis can he hold them to be true? 

Of course many of our choices (far more than we imagine) are in practice not free. But there only has to be one occasion in the history of mankind when a truly moral decision was made, or one truly free exercise of the will – and the materialist case is blown.

So we can marvel at the wonder of God’s creation in the workings of the brain, without supposing for a moment that the brain has taken the place of the mind – or, if you prefer the terminology, the soul.

(Many will remember the conditions which had to be fulfilled for mortal sin: grave matter, full knowledge, full consent. Without for a moment denying free will, it does seem hard to judge subjectively whether full consent is easily present. Conversely, when we perform a virtuous act, how do we separate our free choice from other, secular, factors which influence us? You may have a comment about this, or other aspects of the column. Keep them coming!)

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Mind over Matter

  1. Lucius says:

    There’s a powerful scene in Frankenstein with Robert De Niro. The creature indicates to the doctor that he can play the flute, and has various other abilities. The notion is advanced that these were “brain functions/abilities” belonging to the various individuals whose body parts were used to “create” the creature. I thought about the materialism lurking behind such a notion: that these abilities were simply brain/body functions.

    I think this materialism is lurking in the area of neuroscience usually advanced by the media with sensational stories about the brain source of emotions, the brain source of this or that. However I think some empirical evidence that indicates that we are more than brain function comes from testimony of individuals who were in the persistent vegetative state (PVS) who were written off by doctors as not being able to perceive or know anything give testimony of quite the contrary.

    They indicate that despite the severe brain damage they were aware of people in the room, could remember, and so forth. Hence there is evidence for the philsophical and theological position that the human being is a complex body/soul unity and that intellection involve sense/soul operations.

    For example consider the case of Salvatore Crisafulli. He is an Italian man who spent two years supposedly unconscious in a deep coma, written off by doctors as nearly-dead, and awoke saying he heard and understood everything happening around him during the long ordeal, his family said.

    Salvatore Crisafulli, a father of four, is describing his case as a “miracle” which proves that lost causes are anything but hopeless and his recovery appeared to strengthen the hand of Italians opposed to end-of-life solutions.

    His brother even called Crisafulli “an Italian Terri Schiavo case” with reference to the brain-damaged Florida woman who died in March after her feeding tube was removed.

    “The doctors said that I wasn’t conscious, but I understood everything and I cried in desperation,” Crisafulli was quoted as saying in Italian media. There are a number of these cases yet many doctors overstep the evidence because they view medicine to be imbedded in a materialistic matrix. Of course other areas for exploration to counter brain-materialism are experiences of those who were “dead” that is no heart beat, brain waves, and who are revived but while they were in the former state describe everything that was happening and were engaged in intellectual activity.

  2. James H. says:

    I too have a coma story: a Korean Carmelite nun of my acquaintance spent several months in a coma, during which she says she heard everything spoken nearby by her family and the medical staff. Her whole family became Christian after her recovery – I never had the gall to ask for the story behind that! Again, a purely materialistic explanation would be very difficult.

    On another point, Quentin raises a good question about the conditions for mortal sin: how free are we in any given occasion of sin? Given that sin darkens the intellect (a teaching easily verified on the blogosphere), and even minor sins reduce personal freedom, how much guilt is carried by that first occasion of sin? I’ve come to think C.S Lewis’ advice in Mere Christianity very good: Other peoples excuses are always better than we suppose; and our own excuses are never as good as we expect. Fortunately, God’s mercy trumps everything, as long as we admit we’ve done wrong.

  3. Daisy says:

    I’m glad I am writing behind a pseudonym here because I have been doing a bit of thinking. Just how many of the ‘good’ things I do are really virtuous?
    For example, I would do anything for my children. But I don’t know how much of my love is simply maternal instinct and how much is charity.
    I try to be polite to people, and on the whole I think I am. But is this because I feel a sense of satisfaction in living up to the sort of person I see myself to be. Do I really care about Big Issue sellers? (Not a lot, actually).
    How much of my religious feeling is genuine, and how much is the result of upbringing and habit – even genes?
    This could be a very long list. But I don’t know whether this is just me, or are others like this too? (A bit of me hopes so – very uncharitable – but I don’t want to be the only one left outside.

  4. Horace says:

    Daisy:- like Robbie Burns’ mouse – “thou are no thy-lane”!
    I suspect that many, if not most, of us feel that way if we are honest about it.

    However I would like to tell about a case of coma which is the antithesis of those described by Lucius and James H.

    The patient was a child just entering his teens, referred initially because of a seizure, whose EEG showed intermittent stereotyped disturbances diagnostic of Van Bogaert’s encephalitis (SSPE).
    I repeated the recording several times during the next year to confirm the diagnosis as he was essentially symptom free, but then he began a gradual deterioration, showing symptoms of subtle but increasing dementia, with slow muscle twitches every 20 or so seconds.
    There was (in 1975 and as far as I know still is) no known treatment but the consultant wished to try a new antiviral agent (arabinpside-A) and I was assessing progress with frequent (usually weekly) electroencephalograms.
    I watched as the normal brain activity became slower, more disorganised and gradually disappeared – by which time he was in coma and needed mechanically assisted breathing.
    Then the abnormal electrical disturbances, which by now were occurring about every 10 seconds, themselves became smaller and eventually disappeared, over a period of two or three weeks, indicating that the virus had completely destroyed the functioning of the brain.
    Finally the decision was made to switch off the ventilator and although I was intellectually convinced that the child was dead – indeed had almost certainly been dead for several weeks – it was still an emotionally harrowing experience to watch while the heartbeat, after about ten seconds, became slower, irregular and eventually stopped.

  5. kouin says:

    If you walk the earth with a belly full of principals you ain’t gonna see nothing but the illusions.

  6. RBlaber says:

    Quentin is right that we – meaning religious people, but also the vast majority of the non-scientific population – are all basically Cartesians – we are all convinced that we have minds, and these minds are the locus of our true selves. A dead body is a body vacated by a mind, or soul – the word ‘psyche’ in Greek covers both ideas.
    Most neuroscientists, though, are not Cartesians – they subscribe either to the mind-brain identity theory, or the Rylean epiphenomenalist theory. (Gilbert Ryle’s ‘The Concept of Mind’ [1949] criticised Descartes’ theory harshly, lampooning it as ‘the ghost in the machine’.)
    Alongside them are the computer scientists who believe in what John Searle terms ‘strong AI’: the idea that it will one day be possible to write a computer program that will be able to do everything the human brain can do, and more – one that will be fully conscious, when run on a computer sophisticated enough to cope with it.
    This idea is one that fascinates science fiction writers. They very often come up with cautionary tales in response! Witness, for example, the case of the psychopathic ‘Hal’ in the late Arthur C Clarke’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, or ‘Skynet’ in the ‘Terminator’ films.
    Searle has attempted to refute the ‘strong AI’ theory with his ‘Chinese Room’ argument, which depends on a version of the Turing Test.
    Imagine a man sitting inside a closed room. He is passed notes through a slit in the door, covered in random Chinese characters. Unfortunately, he doesn’t speak Mandarin, or any other Chinese dialect, but he does have a book containing a large list of Chinese words, though it doesn’t give him any of their meanings. He is thus able to take the notes with the random characters, and write down actual words using those same characters, passing them back through the slit in the door.
    It is quite possible to envisage a computer program for turning random sequences of Chinese ideograms into meaningful words, without the need to predicate that the computer ‘understands’ Chinese; just as you can construct chess programs without predicating that computers ‘understand’ the laws of chess. There are already language translation programs available which can do passable jobs of translating one language into another, as long one doesn’t require too much finesse, but there is no need to postulate a cybernetic ability to comprehend French, or any other language.
    You can attach any number of different sensors to a computer, and give that computer sophisticated programs that can do a very good job of presenting and storing the data – but they are not conscious of it, and they do not understand it. It has no meaning for them.
    Humans are different – we have something that cannot be reduced to the algorithmic, and nor – pace Searle – is it a physical or biological property. It is, and has to be, as Quentin eloquently argues (and as CS Lewis argued) extra-physical. Matter cannot produce free-will, or morality, or moral or aesthetic values. It cannot, of itself, produce consciousness – and has not, whatever the scientists think.

  7. Michael Mahoney says:

    It does seem strange that the great majority of neuroscientists, who must have completed some course in the philosophy of science and who would, one supposes, be quite clever people, should not not be able to quickly see what is so evident to all the philosophers, who, presumably, would agree on the terms of the debate and the conclusions to be drawn from it.
    The man in the street must surely resign himself to the fact that he will never know, let alone prove, how the material interacts with the non-material or even what the meaning might be of those terms, or the meaninig of the meaning of them.
    Michael Mahoney

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