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Two Articles on Mind and Brain

Recently a number of related items have popped up, almost at random, that are somewhat related to Rufus’ Field Notes. The first two were articles sent to me by my Uncle: one by Michael S. A. Graziano, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton and the author of the (truly excellent) novel, Love Song of Monkey. In the article, Graziano writes:

[What] is the relationship between our minds and the physical world? Here, we don’t have a settled answer. We know something about the body and brain, but what about the subjective life inside? Consider that a computer, if hooked up to a camera, can process information about the wavelength of light and determine that grass is green. But we humans also experience the greenness. We have an awareness of information we process. What is this mysterious aspect of ourselves?

Many theories have been proposed, but none has passed scientific muster. I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary, a shift from a credulous and egocentric viewpoint to a skeptical and slightly disconcerting one: namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do.

The entire article is worth reading, as are Graziano’s books God Soul Mind Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Reflections on the Spirit World and Consciousness and the Social Brain (probably—I’m guessing on this one, as I haven’t actually read this one yet). In the article and the first book Graziano makes his case for an account of the mind that reckons it in entirely materialist terms. Philosophically this is called eliminative materialism, and while the science is certainly new, the big idea has been around at least since Democritus and Leucippus.

I won’t quote the entire article by Graziano, but I will quote my response to my Uncle:

In ​one of​​ ​his books about neuroscience, he has proposed a theory of consciousness that is intriguing—namely, that consciousness evolved when hominids took their already highly developed social skills (think​ ​of ​monkeys grooming each other, or chattering on the brink of speech) and as individuals then turned these skills “inward”. I don’t know if he’s right or wrong, but it’s an interesting theory.

He doesn’t go into that in the article, but I find that more compelling than his idea about brain-as-information-processing machine. An idea that is pretty worn out, it seems to me, as people have been making that analogy for decades now. It seems to me that Graziano has simply taken the analogy seriously, which is to say he takes the computer as a model for the brain/mind, when of course it is the brain/mind ​(or some of its properties, such as the ability to perform mathematical computations) ​that has historically been a model for the computer.

​This unfortunately seems to me an example of the “cartoonish reconstruction of attention” of which he speaks.​ Not that I think he’s wrong about there being cartoonish awareness, but aren’t some instances of awareness more accurate (less cartoonish) than others?

While Graziano is an excellent novelist and, as near as I can tell, an excellent scientist, in this article ​he makes statements that are half-truths at best.

For example, he writes that Copernicus showed us that “we’re a speck in a large space”, ​and of course this is true as far as it goes, but what of the fact that in that large space, ours is the only planet that supports any kind of life, let alone intelligent life? Of course we may find that we are not alone in the universe, but then what would that mean, exactly? Our planet wouldn’t be unique, strictly speaking, but would that mean that our planet and planet #2 were really less marvelous for supporting life? Of course not, and I doubt Graziano would even claim that. So what exactly is he arguing against? The existence of God? Why?

​Likewise for his second great scientific insight, that “we’re a twig on the tree of evolution”. Just another twig? I doubt Graziano really believes this​. One twig on a tree is much like any other twig, which really isn’t all that different from bigger limbs or even a tree trunk or a tree’s roots. But Graziano is one of the only kind of primate to study other primates. It may turn out that Graziano and the rest of the human race evolve into beings that are as different from us as we are from non-rational animals, or as animals are from vegetable life, or as vegetable life is from inorganic matter, but this remains to be seen. But to say that the most complex organism produced yet by evolution is just another twig strikes me as betrayal of Darwin’s theory rather than a supporting analogy.

Like the philosophers Dennet and Churchland he refers to, Graziano’s philosophy of mind seems to be eliminativist materialism, which seems to me to be ultimately incoherent. Going back to Graziano’s analogy, he’s eliminated any idea of truth except whatever he calls “science”, which seems to me to postpone any and all truth to the claims of some future science. How can he claim that “wavelength is a real, physical phenomenon; color is the brain’s approximate, slightly incorrect model of it​” without relying on “awareness”? How does he know that one “complex bundle of information” is a caricature and another is not?

We know that some things are true and some things are not true, and we know this now. Certainly it is very difficult to prove that anything is true, but somehow that doesn’t stop us from knowing some things are true (not just believing some things are true). Science comes from the Latin “scire”, to know, and ought to include ways of knowing other than mathematics and reasoning with tools. It ought to include reasoning in such areas of philosophy as metaphysics, since arguments for the truth are always built on assumptions of some kind or another, and proponents of any argument need to be able to examine their assumptions.

The other article my Uncle sent to me is by Lawrence Berger, Being There: Heidegger on Why Our Presence Matters, itself a response to the Graziano article linked above. Berger begins:

A cognitive scientist and a German philosopher walk into the woods and come upon a tree in bloom: What does each one see? And why does it matter?

While that may sound like the set-up to a joke making the rounds at a philosophy conference, I pose it here sincerely, as a way to explore the implications of two distinct strains of thought — that of cognitive science and that of phenomenology, in particular, the thought of Martin Heidegger, who offers a most compelling vision of the ultimate significance of our being here, and what it means to be fully human.

In the article, Berger offers a pretty good criticism of the Cartesian view of matter (“The prevailing view is that the universe consists of discrete entities that are ultimately related by physical laws”) and proposes instead that “Heidegger, on the other hand, offers a holistic view of all that is. We belong here together with the trees and the stones, for we are made manifest together. Rather than being discrete entities, the relation comes first, and the extent to which we are related matters for what we and the stone ultimately are.”

I think this is fine as far as it goes, but I’m not so sure Berger or Heidegger get to what we and the stone ultimately are, if only because I don’t think the story ends with just we and the stone.

As I wrote to my uncle:

I’m not sure the difficulty with Heidegger is your problem alone. I think he (and his explicator Berger) leave some things out, without being as clear as Graziano. For example, it seems obvious that it’s easier to talk to somebody who is actually listening, but isn’t clear how “the same general principle applies to a purely physical object such as a stone,” or exactly how “the manner in which such an object is made manifest can be affected by the quality of my presence.” Unless he means something vacuous like my throwing it means that it will move, or (maybe a little less vacuous) that I can use it along with other stones to build a wall.

And Heidegger is notoriously murky, not just in the way he expresses things, but in what he is trying to express. For example, which is “more primordial”: being or time? What is the difference between some thing and the being of some thing? What is the difference between the being of some thing and the being of all things?

It isn’t clear to me that Heidegger makes any headway in answering these questions. The questions themselves have become interesting to me, but I’m not sure there are answers to these questions, or that there is even a way to answer these questions.”

Unless we go back into the history of philosophy and find out why Heidegger formulated these questions in the way he did, and if perhaps that might shed light on why the questions have meaning as ultimate questions, though perhaps unanswerable, or if rather they lead to a philosophical cul-de-sac.

I suspect the latter, but the place to go is Reduction and Givenness by Jean-Luc Marion, who reveals how much Heidegger’s ontological investigation owe to his teacher Husserl’s phenomenological investigations.


  1. Graziano and others who are like-minded strike me as examples of very smart people saying very smart things about what they ultimately don’t have a clue about. The ideas give a sense of having explained (or explained-away) a deep mystery, and yet once you look up and think on it again the mystery persists.

  2. Quin Finnegan says:

    Yes, exactly … there are probably a number of reasons for this, but one thing in particular would help when it comes to forming the next generation of Grazianos.

    Bring back Latin and Greek.

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