[Neuroscience] Re: Need Help With Neuroscience-Related Article

ian.vitro via neur-sci%40net.bio.net (by ian.vitro At gmail.com)
Fri Jan 5 10:21:38 EST 2007


As a grad student with boatloads of neuro training, I could put in more
than 2 cents worth. As Glen says, there's a good deal of hyperbole
here. The article talks mostly about work from the 19th century, which
we've largely moved beyond in many respects. The subsequent ones
address modern research, but I couldn't access them to give a breakdown
on any one in particular.

Most modern neuroscientists are not concerned about "Who am I?" in
their research. We try to limit ourselves to questions we can answer if
we want to make progress at a scientific level. But it is arguable that
questions such as this drove early neuroscience research. In Phineas
Gage's time (the accident was 1848) most of the world consisted of
confirmed dualists, and the study of mind and brain were only just
starting to coincide thanks to the work of men like Broca, Wernicke and
Hughlings-Jackson later in the 19th and early 20th  centuries.

There are indeed dualists within modern neuroscience and the philosophy
of neuroscience. Check people like Hameroff & Penrose (we can't imagine
how consciousness might work, so it must be really complicated and
involve some equally complicated branch of science - I know! Quantum
physics!) and Frank Jackson (and the concept of qualia); who seem to
believe that whatever the mind is, it consists of a physical portion
and some other portion which is affected by unmeasurable, unknowable
forces. Even some respected scientists, Sir John Eccles for example,
emerge as dualists under close scrutiny.

I am personally a staunch monist (see Patricia Churchland, bless her
heart; and Daniel C. Dennett for arguments supporting this side).
Problem is that once you start talking about "self" and consciousness,
you start getting uncomfortably close to what people might think of as
a soul. And a lot of people aren't willing to let go of that concept
(and they might be right for all we know), and thus feel that some part
of the mind continues forever as a soul, and therefore some part of the
mind must be non-material. My personal feeling is that, like
creationism, this has no place in a science classroom or experimental
reasoning, but it needs to be debated.

The analogy of "software" comes from the view of the mind as a
non-physical aspect of the brain, or at least implies that it exists.
It is a fairly common one, and I really don't like it because of the
clear dualist implications. I like the metaphor offered by the monists
that describe consciousness as an "emergent property" of the brain.
Like in nanotech or computer simulations of pattern recognition, large
groups of information processing units seem to spontaneously
self-assemble to maximize efficiency, some philosophers think something
similar occurs in brains using neurons and glia, and their
multitudinous electrical and chemical interactions.

To be honest, we still have some scientists and philosophers debating
dualism. However, dualism includes by definition a component
inaccessible through the material realm, and thus unmeasurable to
science. Because science concerns itself with the physical and
material, it shouldn't try too hard to incorporate dualism into its

Ian Vitro
PhD Candidate in Neurological Science, McGill University

beachnut wrote:
> Hi, all.
> I need some help here.  My girlfriend sent me an article
> from 'The Economist' (link below), and it has created
> an awful fight between us!  If some of you have a few
> spare minutes, it's short, and I could use some feedback
> from scientists.  I have an Electrical Engineering
> degree and she has degrees in languages and education,
> so we're not experts in neuroscience.
> For those who read the article, my questions are:
> 1.  The subtitle is "Modern neuroscience, says Geoffrey
>     Carr, is groping towards the answer to the oldest
>     question of all: who am I?".
>     Are [most] neuroscientists really concerned with
>     "who am I" in their work?
> 2. Later, the author states:
>    "If the essence of individuality can be changed by
>     a physical accident, it implies that the brain is
>     a mechanism which generates the self, rather than
>     merely an organ which houses it."
>     I say "duh"!!  Is neuroscience into dualism, where
>     there is assumed distinction between mind and body/brain?
> 3.  He goes on to write:
>     "Many people, most of whom would not regard themselves
>     as dualists, think of the brain as being like a computer,
>     and the mind as being like a piece of software that runs
>     on that computer. But this analogy, too, is flawed. You
>     do not have to do much damage to a computer to stop it
>     being able to run programs. Yet as the case of Gage and
>     numerous subsequent individuals has shown, the self can
>     plod on, albeit changed, after quite radical brain damage."
>     Who are these "many people"?  Most intelligent people
>     I know don't give any credence to this computer analogy.
> 4.  This one really perplexed me:
>     "...whisper not the word soul"
>     Your take?
> Okay, finally ;-)  here's the link!
>    http://www.economist.com/surveys/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8407261
> I've seen the magazine itself and there are several short pieces
> after this to comprise the Survey.  But this intro by this Economist
> science editor (a psychologist by trade) was enough for me to go
> off on.
> Thanks to any that have the time to read and respond!!
> Tear me up if need be!  I just need to hear it from actual
> scientists.
> beachnut

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