Why I Am Not My Brain

Some reflections on why the mind does not fully reduce to the brain

Posted Jul 23, 2012

While vacationing at the beach I read with interest Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, and a regular contributor to Scientific American. We see eye-to-eye on many issues, including the arguments against religious truth claims, the value of a skeptical attitude and the scientific method in arriving at reliable knowledge, and the ways in which human beliefs are formed and maintained. Indeed, in his book Shermer lays out the position of belief-dependent realism, which ultimately is very congruent with the Justification Hypothesis (which unfortunately he does not review). He characterizes the central thesis of the book in a straightforward manner, as follows (p. 5):

“We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs, we then defend, justify and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, then explanations follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs we hold about it. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends on the beliefs we hold at any given time.”

Apart from some minor quibbles I might have with the lack of technical precision in some of the above language, I strongly agree with the central thesis of Shermer’s framework. Indeed, the Justification Hypothesis, which argues that the human self-consciousness system evolved as a function of the need to be able to justify one’s actions in a sociolinguistic context, provides a clear evolutionary rationale and sequence that supports Shermer’s formulation. Shermer’s book is a strong review of his position and offers a nice review of the wide variety of beliefs people justify, along with many interesting vignettes.

My major critique of Shermer’s position is that he at times (although certainly not always) seems to adopt the position of a greedy physical reductionist. This is the position that there is no ‘mind’ that exists independently from the brain (which I agree with) AND that all mental processes will be ultimately explained by brain processes (which I do not). He states his reductionistic views most clearly when explaining the influence of B. F. Skinner on his philosophy. He writes, “my current belief that there is no such thing as “mind”, and that all mental processes can be explained only by understanding the underlying neural correlates of behavior” (p. 41). And yet in in the book Shermer talks convincingly and passionately about mental processes, reviews much work in cognitive science, and seems to ultimately adopt an emergent evolutionary view. In that regard, his position seems very similar to mine. From my point of view, there clearly is such a thing as mind, which is the information instantiated within and processed by the nervous system (for more, see here). So what is going on here?

I believe Shermer’s confusion ultimately stems from the failure of an adequate broad epistemology (or theory of knowledge) that satisfactorily resolves the issue of ‘reality’ as being either monistic or dualistic. As I have written about when critiquing E. O. Wilson’s consilience and explaining the value of the ToK System, we need a proper (and new) understanding of emergent evolution in solving the problem of reductionism. Let me explain.

Throughout the centuries, philosophers of all stripes have argued that either the universe is essentially monistic, meaning that it is fundamentally one kind of substance (e.g., matter), or dualistic (two substances, usually one natural, the other supernatural). The dualist view that there are two streams/spheres/substances that make up reality. This view was perhaps most famously articulated by Descartes, who believed that the stuff of human consciousness and God was a spiritual essence that was of a fundamentally different kind than what operated in the material world (which for him included plants and animals). This position is called substance dualism, and if you believe in a God that occupies a supernatural plane and that the human soul can exist separately from the body, then at some level you are a substance dualist.

Since the time of Descartes, natural science has been challenging a dualistic view. First, at the level of conceptual coherence no one has been able to even begin to explain the nature of the supernatural world (where does it exist? what is it made of? how does it work?), nor has anyone even begun to solve the problem of how the supernatural world might interface with the natural world (Descartes erroneously hypothesized it might be the pituitary gland). There is such ambiguity about basic issues in understanding the supernatural that most philosophers consider substance dualism to be a nonstarter. Another blow to dualism was Darwin’s theory of natural selection because it formed a potential bridge between the inanimate and the animate worlds. Prior to Darwin, the general explanation for the complexity of life was that it was infused with a supernatural vitalistic life force provided by the Creator. Darwin’s theory suggested such complexity might have evolved without such a purposeful designer. Third, physiology and genetics ultimately showed that organic events were mediated by genetic information processing and mental events were clearly connected to brain processes and brain function. Finally, psychology (e.g., Freud’s psychoanalysis) and the social sciences began to provide explanatory frameworks for mental processes grounded in a natural view of biology.

But monistic positions run into problems of their own. Consider that there are huge, qualitative differences in the behavior of different classes of objects. Plants and bacteria behave very differently than rocks and molecules, and mammals like dogs behave very differently than plants. Finally, humans seem to be almost in a class by themselves. The (greedy) reductionist perspective says, yes such entities do behave differently, but at bottom, they are just complicated arrangements of matter.

Via the Tree of Knowledge System, the unified theory offers a new picture of the essence of reality. Instead of reality being bouncing bits of matter at its core, the essence of reality claimed by the unified theory is an unfolding wave of behavior that can be characterized as the flow of Energy-Information (which the ToK System depicts graphically). This conception changes the traditional concept of reductionism. Reductionists tend to view nature in terms of levels. First there are particles, then atoms, then molecules, then macromolecules, then cells, then multicellular organisms, then groups. The laws that describe the behavior of the parts cause, bottom up, the behavior of the whole. This is where Shermer is coming from when he claims that if we want to understand and explain mental processes, we need to understand, bottom up, how the brain works.

The unified theory embraces the importance of levels in nature (parts, wholes, groups, and ecology are all different and important levels of analysis). However, the unified theory, with its view that essences are informational in nature, argues that different systems of information processing give rise to qualitative, dimensional shifts in emergent entities. It further specifies that there have been three quantum jumps in information processing in the history of the human world. First, there was genetic information processing, which mediates organic behavior. Then there was neuronal information, which mediates animal behavior. Finally, there was sociolinguistic behavior which mediates human behavior. (And now electronic?) These systems of information allow for the self-assembly of behavioral patterns that cannot be fully understood at the dimension of analysis beneath the object being understood. Organisms like bacteria and flowers cannot be understood as complicated chemistry because their very essence is the flow of genetic/epigenetic information, which is not explicable or reducible to chemistry. The essence of the behavior of dogs and monkeys is not fully explicable in terms of bio-organic processes alone, but are self-assembled dynamic systems mediated by neuro-information processing (but not reducible to neurophysiological mechanics, which is the organic dimension of explanation!). And, finally, the behavior of humans is mediated, not only by genetic and neuronal information processing, but also sociolinguistic.

The bottom line is that the unified theory concurs with Shermer when he claims that all experience is mediated by the brain and that without a brain, there is no mental processes. And, certainly, the neuro- mechanics that at the biological dimension of complexity are key elements necessary for a full understanding. But you cannot reduce the mental to the biological because the mental refers to the emergent behavioral patterns that are mediated by neuro-information.

The analogy I like to use is that between a physical book and the information content in the book. On my desk is Shermer’s book, with a certain mass, temperature and molecular content. Yet it is conceptually impossible to decode or reduce the information content (which sociolinguistic) to the material physical properties of the book. Shermer’s arguments in his book are no more reducible to the sum total of physical manifestations of his writings than Shermer is to his brain. People are not their brains.

Think about it this way. Would you be able to recognize your brain if you saw it? Leaving aside the fact that I would be dead, if someone showed me my brain, I could not recognize it as distinct from anyone else’s. Yet I can recognize myself, and not just by my appearance, but by my sentient experiences and beliefs. I am not my brain, any more than I am my heart or digestive system. Instead, the unified theory tells me I am my pattern of behavioral investments, my sentient experiences, and my justifications. My brain is necessary for such patterns and my brain mediates such patterns, but these patterns are not fully reducible to brain activity. Finally, it is me, the self-assembled organized informational pattern of behavioral investment and justification that believes in the unified theory, not my brain (or my stomach or the muscles in my fingers typing this post!).