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the matter of mind

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A while ago, in 3 consecutive posts, here, here and here, I reviewed rather sharply a three-person presentation criticising the so called ‘new atheism’. The speakers were the philosopher Roger Scruton, novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, and Jonathan Ree. Two of the speakers, Scruton and Robinson, were professed Christians, while Ree was a non-believer who would probably style himself as agnostic, but who was peed off by the disrespectful and combative attitudes of Dawkins et al. I myself was peed off, of course, but particularly by Robinson’s tired ‘scientism’ critique, and by her claim, clearly untrue, that modern atheists were ignoring the specialness of human consciousness. Since then I’ve been reading a bit and listening a bit to stuff on consciousness, human and other, and I’m finding that this is an extraordinarily burgeoning field, and one that’s doing no favours for the claim of human specialness, which some believers are still clinging to as a sign of their particular place in the mind of their supernatural creator-being.

As I mentioned then, one of the most prominent ‘new atheists’, Daniel Dennett, was a particularly prominent and respected writer on consciousness, and of course there are plenty of others, philosophers and scientists, thoroughgoing ‘materialists’, whether or not they promote ‘new atheism’ directly, who are doing much to discover and understand the neurophysiological underpinnings, not only of consciousness, but of ‘mind’ more generally. In doing so they’re leaving far behind the dualistic ideas presented by Descartes 350 years ago and still adhered to by prominent thinkers up to the end of the twentieth century, and indeed beyond, if what I hear about Australian philosopher David Chalmer’s ideas about consciousness are true. One philosophically-minded neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, has taken on this dualism in a more clear-cut way than usual, though without referring to the soulful Christian implications of abandoning a dualism which was arguably first put forward by Descartes precisely to preserve the soul concept, and human specialness.

Damasio’s book, Descartes’ Error, doesn’t deal with consciousness per se [but his interest in consciousness, together with some ideas on how to tackle the problem, are on display here], and I assume that, considering that the book was first published in 1994 [though revised in the mid 2000s, the edition I’ve read], there’s much even in his own area of research, on the importance of emotional factors in affecting our reasoning capacity, that requires updating. This is the first book I’ve read on neurophysiology – though I’ve read plenty of bits and pieces in science mags, and I’ve just finished another book, Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, which contains quite a bit of neurophysiology, especially in the end-notes – and it’s pretty daunting for a lay person, trying to locate and keep in mind such brain or neuronal areas as the anterior cingulate, the amygdala, the primary somatosensory cortices, the basal ganglia, the hypothalamus and the autonomic nervous system. Damasio cleverly pulls the reader in, though, by relating the perennially fascinating story of Phineas Gage and his horrific brain injury [I believe I read a version of Damasio’s introductory chapter on Gage years ago in a science mag]. This story is not only intrinsically engaging, but it sets the scene for the brain explorations to follow. Gage ‘recovered’ from his injury, in which a large railway spike, explosively propelled, passed through his brain and skull. He lost an eye, but seemed otherwise unharmed, on a superficial view. However, his behaviour was much altered, and a careful reconstruction of the pathway of the spike [actually a tamping iron] through Gage’s brain, together with an analysis of the descriptions of Gage’s changed state [the accident occurred in 1848] by Dr John Harlow, the physician who first treated him, and by others who treated or knew him – no easy task, as there was more fiction than fact involved – and studies of others who have suffered similar brain injuries or damage, has helped to elucidate how Gage could have so recovered physically while being so psychologically transformed. Damasio’s account, which involves the exhumation and re-examination of poor Gage’s remains as well as detailed study of damage to similar areas of the brain in others, is a detective story more absorbing than anything you’ll find in CSI or Silent Witness, because it tries to get to the heart of how emotional states and responses affect our reasoned decision-making, and to discover which areas of the brain are involved in these complex processes, and how they connect and interact.

Damasio also makes use of the findings of experimental psychology, particularly in game theory, to elucidate the behavioural and thinking patterns of those with Gage’s type of prefrontal brain damage – the Gage matrix, as he calls it. One of the features of people with this damage is an apparent inability to learn and modify behaviour based on previous experience. Though they are often able to articulate the lessons an experience can provide, they seem incapable of acting on what they’ve learned. or retaining the lesson for long. This trait was brought out well in a series of gambling experiments, the details of which I won’t go into here. The principal game was set up to allow people to learn along the way. The initial impression is that the game rewards high-risk strategies, but after a few losses, normal players soon learn that a more conservative, low-risk strategy has the potential to reap greater rewards. Frontal lobe damaged players seem unable to learn this and continue to use the same strategy in spite of massive and mounting losses. There’s much more to it than this, of course, but the lack of this ability to learn seems bound up with an emotional flatness, a lack of normal concern about outcomes.

Of course the bottom line in all this is that, to state the bleeding obvious, brain damage leads to a different kind of mind. We can assume therefore, that consciousness, which is common to a great many creatures, is nothing more than a hugely complex set of brain processes, as are our emotional responses, our memories, our attention and our dreams. We’ve only begun to embark on investigating these processes, and it’s one of the most exciting journeys humans have ever undertaken.


Written by stewart henderson

May 26, 2012 at 11:53 am

Posted in education, mind

Tagged with ,

2 Responses

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  1. What about the two posterior lobes? That’s where my consciousness is generally seated.

    Michael Robertson

    June 12, 2012 at 10:14 am

  2. I think you may have been confused by the word ‘posterior’.


    June 13, 2012 at 2:59 am

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