We are not our brain: How to break the spell of the neurosciences

We-are-not-our-brain-How-to-break-the-spell-of-the-neurosciences-1.jpgWhat are we? Are we a soul? An immaterial mind? A flow of energy? A body? A series of neural patterns? Is there an answer to such questions that is compatible both with the hard sciences and with our personal insights?  

To start with, I believe a common and accepted point is that we are one and the same with our conscious flow of experience. We exist when we feel, desire, perceive. If there were no experience, there would be no people. If we had no experience, we would not exist, no matter if our bodies were alive and well.

If human beings were like that, this would be a zombie world populated by possibly intelligent automata, but no one would really be present. Thus, to understand what we are, we need to understand what is our conscious experience, or experience for short. Since I am a physicalist, let me set aside all spiritual solutions as inconsistent with empirical evidence.

The key question is, what is our experience? What is the thing, in the physical world, that is identical with our experience? Is it a property of the body, or is it something else altogether? My goal is to offer an alternative to the current prevailing belief, in neuroscience and in philosophy of mind, that if one is a materialist, one must hold that consciousness is a phenomenon internal to one’s body.

Prior to the current scientific age, the general consensus had been that people are different from their bodies; the most widespread notion was that we have a body rather than being our body. It is not by chance that our everyday language still betrays this original (and more intuitive) notion: we say things like “I have a body” or “I have a brain.” We don’t say, “I am a body” or “I am a brain.” Likewise, we have lungs, kidneys, a heart, and a skeleton.

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In contrast with this view, neuroscience, and medicine have encouraged and supported a different and increasingly more popular view according to which we are one and the same as our bodies or, more precisely, as our brains. In science, this view was officially named, in the ’40s, the mind-brain identity theory, and it has been variously articulated in the ensuing decades. In fact, this idea had already been boiling for decades since the 1850s among the German physiologists.

After the computational turn, the idea reincarnated in various versions in the neurosciences – the Neural Correlates of Consciousness, Giulio Tononi’s integrated information, and the recent interest in single neurons activation at the onset of conscious experience. These approaches move from the so-far undemonstrated enthusiastic statement by Francis Crick: “Consciousness is nothing but what our neurons do.”

Give or take, all these authors backed up the notion that we are a brain or, at least, something that takes place inside our brains. Popular culture, encouraged by evocative and brightly colored computer-generated images of brain activities often construed as mental activities, has followed the same trend. From Wachowski’s The Matrix to Pixar/Disney’s Inside Out, through umpteen sci-fi tv series, the idea that we are one and the same as our brains have been convincingly and graphically represented on the silver screen.

Finally, this propaganda has found in the computer paradigm yet another powerful ally in the form of the software inside the hardware – i.e. a digital ghost in the shell. Allegedly the brain is like a computer, neurons are like transistors, they process information, which is like the immaterial spirit only it sounds scientifically acceptable, and we will achieve immortality by means of mind-upload. Amen!

Unfortunately, this is all fantastical thinking that no one has ever demonstrated. Francis Crick himself was forced to admit that “No one has produced any plausible explanation as to how the experience of the redness of red could arise from the action of the brain.” The likely reasons why medicine felt obliged to follow the mind-body identity, in all versions of it, are rather simple. Medicine embraced materialism.

This is the right thing to do in science but, due to lack of imagination or fear of dualism, most scientists believe there are only two viable options: either consciousness is an immaterial soul (which would run afoul of science) or it is one and the same as the brain.

The former option seemed untenable and thus medicine, and eventually, neuroscience embraced the latter – to the extent that contemporary philosophers like Colin McGinn admitted unabashedly that “Neural transmissions just seem like the wrong kind of materials with which to bring consciousness into the world.” The problem is so unsolvable that the official position of science is that it is, in practice, not solvable.

And yet there is an alternative solution, so simple that it has been ignored by most, if not all, scientists and philosophers, an alternative hidden in plain sight. It is a solution that merges what we know about the material world with what we feel every day. This is the alternative offered by The Spread Mind (www.thespreadmind.com).

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It is a solution that, notwithstanding the importance of our bodies, shows that we are more than a collection of cells and organs; we are more than lungs, hearts, blood vessels, bones, and, yes, a brain. According to this view, we are 100% physical and yet we are not our body. We speak and express ourselves through our body, but we are not identical with it. What are we then, according to The Spread Mind, if we are not our body?

We are the world made of all those objects that, at any moment, our body brings into existence. In a nutshell, the hypothesis is that we are the external objects that are the constituents of the world we experience. We are our experience, and our experience is the world we experience.

So, when we think of our body and our experience of the world, we must ask ourselves, what is closer to our experience, the body or the world? When we focus on our experience, what do we find – people, objects, things, or cells, neurotransmitters, and blood? When I see a red apple, what is my experience made of?

Is it made of neurons, or is it made of the bright red and round shape of the apple? The simple but breath-taking hypothesis is that the stuff our consciousness is made of is the stuff of the world.

At the same time, The Spread Mind does not diminish the importance of the body. On the contrary, the body plays a twofold role. On the one hand, the body brings into existence a world relative to itself and, on the other hand, it allows such a world to express itself.

The body is the conditions that allow a relative world to exist, but such a world is neither the body nor inside the body. Our consciousness is no longer a mysterious phenomenon inside the brain. Our consciousness of the world is the world relative to our body. We are the world. We are a world.

Thus, we are physical and we are not inside our body. The skin is no longer the boundary of the person, the skin is only the boundary of the organs that constitute our body. The person is beyond such a boundary.

As I mentioned at the beginning, The Spread Mind is based on three steps:

1) Experience of an object is being identical with that object.
2) Every object exists relative to another object (which, in our case, is our body).
3) Every object takes place in time (Dt>O).

I impressionistically outlined the first point in the paragraphs above. Due to lack of space, I will not address the last one, but I will briefly explain the second point (every object is relative) because it allows me to reply to the most immediate objection: how could we be identical to the external objects? Should we not be all the same?

What about the fact that the world appears different to me than it appears to you? How could we find our unicity in a world made of objects? That’s where the second point – the object is relative – kicks in and that’s what I want to explain in the rest of this article. To make this point clear, we need to take a quick trip to the core of western science and uncover a puzzle that has remained unresolved since its very beginning in the XVII century.

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In 1623, give or take, Galileo kickstarted the scientific method thanks to a great (over)simplification that, like all oversimplifications, had its advantages and its disadvantages.

Galileo (and practically everyone else afterward) supposed that the physical world is made up of fixed objective properties. On the one hand, such a great oversimplification allowed science to develop and grow almost overnight but, on the other hand, it has remained utterly mysterious how the world could appear different to each of us.

Galileo himself proposed a solution that has remained unchallenged: the world of physical objects has objective properties that do not depend on the observers, the world of conscious experience is made of subjective qualities that depend on subjects. Such subjective qualities — later to be named qualia, phenomenal experiences, secondary properties, and the like — were believed to reside in the body. They are the stuff conscious experience is made of.

For example, an apple has objective properties. It is round. It has a radius of 2 inches. It is not moving. It is red. If Stephanie, who is color blind, sees it as grayish, it is not because the apple is gray, but because Stephanie has a subjective experience of gray. In turn, when I see the apple as red, it’s not because the apple is actually red, but because I have a mental red. And so forth.

The colors we see, be they red or gray, are no longer in the apple. Where are they then? Galileo placed colors, and all other sensations, in the mind, but he didn’t know what nor where the mind was. A classic example of explaining the unfathomable by the even more unfathomable! We have been looking for the mind because we have been looking for the lair of alleged subjective experiences.

Their last hideout has been, of course, the brain. But nobody has ever found our familiar conscious experience in the brain, amidst neurons. Old theories are accepted like old friends of the family. They live on without being questioned, and too often they are assumed to be correct. Even when such theories are caught in an error, they are likely to be excused. It is time to question the starting point on which Galileo built Western science.

The Spread Mind offers a very simple solution. It goes back to the very root of science and takes a different turn. The world is not a collection of objective properties appearing to us through a veil of subjective appearances.

The world is one, and it is all made of the same stuff. What is this stuff? The basic idea is that all physical properties are relative — size, velocity, shape, color, weight. They are all relative to other physical objects.

Crucially, they are not subjective, which entails being relative to a subject. They are relative to other objects. Thus, there is no need to pursue the subjective-objective dichotomy.

Each physical entity is what it is relative to another physical entity. In this way, we never get out of the physical world, but the physical world is much richer than Galileo had foreseen.

Let me take advantage of a couple of examples. First, consider velocity that, as every schoolboy knows, is a relative property. Suppose that a Ferrari sports car is speeding at 100 miles per hour on the highway. I’m on the same highway, with my more modest Ford, at a velocity of 70 miles per hour.

The Ferrari has, relative to my vehicle, a relative speed of 30 miles per hour. The sports car is moving both at 100 mph and at 30 mph. Which one of the two velocities is the true one? Is 100 mph an objective velocity and 30 mph a subjective velocity? Of course not. They are neither objective nor subjective.

They are both relative physical properties. The former speed (100) is relative to the ground and the latter (30) is relative to my vehicle. They are both physical. There is not an absolute or truer velocity. There are only relative velocities.

Now consider color. Take a computer LCD screen showing a uniform white background. At one meter distance, to a standard trichromat it looks white. I see it as white. However, if I were red blind, I would not be able to see the red component of the light emitted by the screen.

The other two components are blue and green, and thus, I would see the screen as cyan-ish, which is the combination of blue and green alone. If I were green blind, the screen would appear magenta-ish to me. And so forth. Moreover, if I get closer to the screen, at less than 1 cm distance, I will see what the screen is made of – namely, an array of red, green and blue lights.

Is the screen white, magenta, cyan, or is it multicolored? Are there any objective colors? No. There are only relative colors. The screen has different colors depending on which physical system it interacts with. As there is no absolute velocity, so there is no absolute color. All is relative to the appropriate physical system.

So, we can generalize the notion that there are no fixed physical properties. Every property, and thus every object, is relative. The screen is not absolute white, it is white relative to an eye capable of picking up in equal measure red, blue and green lights.

At the same time, it is cyan-ish relative to red blind eyes. It is magenta-ish relative to green blind eyes. It does not appear cyan-ish or magenta-ish, it is cyan and magenta. A car is not speeding at 100 mph. It is speeding at 100 mph relative to the ground, and only 30 mph relative to my car.

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In the same way, I can show that all the familiar properties of the world are not absolute. Even size, shape and weight. A tree does not have an absolute size. It is said five meters tall relative to a stick arbitrarily called “a meter,” and placed at zero distance from it.

The second point of The Spread Mind is a formidable hypothesis: the world is not a monolithic bundle of absolute objective properties, but a multiplicity of relative properties coming into existence whenever there is the interaction between an object and another object.

Thus, Galileo’s idea of an objective physical world that we perceive by means of multiple subjective experiences is revealed for what it has always been, namely, a gross oversimplification.

The world is a collection of relative properties. Such a wealth of physical relative properties allows us to locate our unicity in the external world. The world I am identical with is no longer an inner subjective world, it is the external world as it comes into existence relative to that particular object that is my body.

Each body brings into existence a different universe relative to itself. We live in a relative multiverse. It is in such a multiverse that we can find what we are.

The step I ask you to take is to abandon the idea that we are separate from reality – the flattering but untenable notion that we are subjects amidst objects. We are not different from the world. We are not special. We are objects too.

The traditional boundary between internal and external does not mark the separation between us, our experience, and the world. It marks, more humbly, the separation between our body and the surrounding environment.

But we are neither our body nor inside it. We are the world that exists relative to our body. Our consciousness is such a world. Our mind is spread to be a world.


Source: Riccardo Manzotti 


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