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Strangers In A Strange Land

Artist impression of HMS Astute, a submarine built with advanced on-board life support systems. Getty Images hide caption

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“No man is an island, complete unto itself.”

Remarkably, that is exactly what most contemporary cognitive scientists — students of consciousness and cognition, whether in neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence, or philosophy — are now inclined to assume.

Mind, after all, is almost universally taken to be something inside us. That was Descartes’ view. Inside each of us there is a thing that thinks and feels. Each of us is identical to that thing. Neuroscience updates the picture by adding that that thing inside you that thinks and feels is your brain.

You are your brain!

What are the implications of such a view? One is that we inhabit our bodies as a submariner inhabits his or her vessel; the main function of the body is to transmit signals from the surrounding sea of stimulation to neural headquarters. And what of the world beyond the body? Well, it is nothing more than a sea of potential stimulation! And what of other people? These are nothing other than more-or-less persistent patterns in the flow of surrounding stimulation!

What an ugly idea!

As if our natural state is to be lonely explorers navigating a remote and uninhabitable environment relying only on our instrument panel! What a pale and implausible conception of ourselves!

Is it really surprising that in a scientific and intellectual culture dominated by such an impoverished conception, we should also find ourselves plagued with anxieties about  spiritual emptiness and materialism run amok, as my fellow bloggers Stuart Kauffman, Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser, and Ursula Goodenough, have been discussing this week?

Remarkably, this internalistic, individualistic conception of ourselves is not dictated by the best natural science, although it is, probably, a hangover from a distinctively modern (that is to say, 17th century) way of thinking about things. (Although remember John Donne for a heterodox alternative!) The you-are-your-brain conception is a symptom of our lack of theoretical imagination. Somehow we have been taken prisoner by the idea that either the mind is a thing inside us (the brain) or it is supernatural.

But here’s the crux: we have no better idea how the brain gives rise to consciousness than we do how an immaterial soul does. Why are we so sure that we need to into look inward, into our heads, to find ourselves?

Let’s imagine a new possibility. Your brain is not the thing inside you that thinks and feels. Not because something immaterial does this work for you, but because nothing does. Thinking and feeling is not something that happens in you, not in your brain, or anywhere else. Consciousness is something you achieve. It is something you do, and like everything else you do, it depends on your embedding in and reliance on the world around you (including other people).

Trying to find consciousness in the brain — consider this! — would be like trying to find the value of money in the molecular structure of bank notes. And just as the fact that we can’t find the value of money using an electron microscope does not show that value is mysterious, the fact that we can’t find consciousness in the brain does not show that consciousness is somehow unnatural.

The fact that a conception is ugly doesn’t mean it is the wrong conception. My own view, however, is that the you-are-your-brain conception is dead wrong and that the best, new biology of consciousness supports this idea that the mind is not in the head. We need to get out of our heads to understand ourselves. For we are not brains in vats of skull, we are animals, dynamically entangled with the world around us. Where do you stop and where does the world around you begin? Not at the skull, and not even at the limits of the body.

This is the argument of my recent book Out of Our Heads: Why You are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. The best new science of consciousness does not represent us as strangers in a strange land. For we are not strangers here.

We are home sweet home.