Myths of Evolution (5): Kin Selection
Debilitating Cold

You Are Not Your Brain

Apologies for falling behind on the comments - I've been away in Prague on business. I'll catch up next week. As a partial reply to Scott's concerns about behavioural reductionism I would like to share this quote from a recent article in The Guardian (Saturday 27/12/08), by neuroscientist Stephen Rose:

However, it is not brains that have concepts or acquire knowledge. It is people, using their brains. To paraphrase the anthropologist Tim Ingold, I need legs to walk, but I don't say “my legs are walking”. Similarly, I need my brain to think, but it is I, not my brain, who does the thinking. Indeed, [Semir] Zeki gives the game away when he quotes Kant as saying “The Mind does not derive its laws... from nature but prescribes them to her” and goes on to say “he might as well have been writing about the brain”. No, no; the mind may need the brain, but it is not reducible to it, and we neuroscientists need to recognise our limitations. Of course, such reductionism is not confined to my trade (think of The Selfish Gene), but it is currently rampant among neuroscientists – as in the title of a recently formed Society for Molecular and Cellular Cognition.

To put it another way: you and your mind may be inseparable, but your mind and your brain are not the same entity. Your brain is the biological system you use to think, and the organ that co-ordinates your behaviour, but it is you that acts and not your brain.

Have a great weekend everyone!


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What is "You"?

It's 6 points in Scrabble. :p

Er... 21st letter of the alphabet, isn't it? As opposed to "I", which is the ninth.

Why not say that your brain is not you? The brain hosts a lot of thought processes, only some of which constitute your conscious thought, and the rest of which may or may not be in service of those conscious thoughts. So why not say, your brain is not you? Or in other words, the self is just a part of the whole, embodied, contextualised, thinking machine.

Mind and body are not seperate, but as Bateson points out, man cutting down tree with axe is a 'mind' containing man, axe, and 'developing axe-cut-in-tree'. Herein lies the truth.

In other words, mind extends (and excludes) some parts of body.

Matt: "What is 'You'?"

This question, which leads into the various questions of personal identity, is a central issue of philosophy of mind. I can't possibly cover it in a comment, but I'm working towards a serial on philosophy of mind later this year or early next.

There are two basic questions:

1. How is it that even though I change over time I still conceptualise myself as one identity? (The diachronic problem of personal identity).
2. What features or traits characterise a person at any given time? (The synchronic problem of personal identity).

I hope to get to all of this, possibly starting with David Hulme's remarkably clear-sighted view of this problem in the 18th century.

zenBen: "Why not say that your brain is not you?"

I'm unclear what you're saying: did you mean to say "Why not say that your brain *is* you", or are you agreeing with me in a circumlocutory fashion? :) Personally, even though I acknowledge that my brain has a key role in synthesising my experiences, I would feel a great loss without the rest of my body parts! Some in particular I have become quite fond of. :D

Brennan: what you say here is a viewpoint perhaps more easily reached from Eastern, rather than Western, philosophical perspectives. :)

Oh, and it's *Bateman*, not Bateson, although as a mistake for my surname I generally prefer Bateson to Batman. Not that it isn't amusing to recieve junk mail addressed to Batman! :)

Best wishes!

"I'm unclear what you're saying"

I meant to refer to the 'zombie' or 'phantom' in the brain mostly often met in Ramachandran's writings. There is a lot more going on in the brain than just conscious thought, as I'm sure you're aware, and its an open question whether the whole serves as some kind of support or scaffold for consciousness, or whether consciousness is just a by-product.
So I agree with your post, that all the extremities help to comprise the individual in an irreducible way - but could we go even further and say the 'you' does not represent everything that it thinks it does? One says 'this is my body', but one cannot even control all parts of the body.

Regarding "Bateson" -- I honestly thought Brennan was referring to another philosopher. :)

"1. How is it that even though I change over time I still conceptualise myself as one identity? (The diachronic problem of personal identity). "

??? How is this a problem? Why should our identity be different than any object in the physical world? They change over time... deteriorate. But we still consider an old object the same object it was before.
Even in fictional works where someone's consciousness is able to be transferred to another body or to another system, it is still considered the same consciousness - the same identity.
This could be compared to corporations - A business can change its physical location, hire completely new staff, rebrand, or even start selling completely different products, and they are still the same corporation.
Everything is constantly changing ... I guess I just don't understand your question. Or rather, the reason your question exists.
Maybe I'm oversimplifying things.

"'you' does not represent everything that it thinks it does? One says 'this is my body', but one cannot even control all parts of the body."

Not being able to control all the parts doesn't take away our feeling of ownership of them.


I think the obvious and probably cheesy sounding response I have been thusfar too shy to announce is that "We are greater than the sum of our parts"..
"You" not only encompasses the sphere of our bodies, but also our consciousness, our interpersonal connections, the impact we have on the world, what we create, our experiences. etc..

I also think "you" could be considered much greater than all of these things -- even future events could be part of "you", because of our current potential to affect change in the future.
Our dreams and aspirations are a part of our sense of identity as well ... So to strive towards a goal and achieve it helps to validate "you".
If that goal or future occurrence is a major world event that impacts many lives, who is to say that you didn't precognitively know that this *would* take place in the future?

That probably sounds crazy. And I'm not sure I really believe it. Just rambling again though.. Which apparently requires no appology.

Thanks Chris for providing this stimulation and forum for my thoughts :)

Firstly, an apology to Brennan! Organic io is absolutely right in suggesting this is a reference to another philosopher - I now realise he's referring to Gregory Bateson, who wrote "Steps to an Ecology of Mind" and "Mind and Nature". My bad! :)

zenBen: "but could we go even further and say the 'you' does not represent everything that it thinks it does?"

Well if we're going to dig into ways to go further, we can go further in either direction here. You can either suggest (as you do) that there are aspects of what goes on in your body/brain that do not fit in with what you consider "you" (a reductionist distinction) or you can take it in the other direction and suggest that thinking of yourself in isolation - as a single organism - fails to take into account everything that constitutes "you" since parts of you lie in the interrelatedness of you in the context of your society and world (a holistic distinction).

I feel this pull in both directions.

organic io: regarding your comment in Deconstructing Flow, the thing about the Game is, although it may seem that I am dictating everything that gets written, I really do see it as a non-fiction role-playing game: like any good GM, I try to be responsive to the needs of the players. Writing this piece in response to your comment was the perfectly natural play as far as I was concerned! :)

I'll get to the diachronic problem of personal identity in due course. In brief: unlike an object, the nature of your thoughts, beliefs and behaviour can be radically different at one point in time to another. What connects who you are at one time to who you are at another? Imagine we had a Star Trek transporter, and it accidentally made two copies of you (as happens in the episode "Second Chances") - which one would be the "real" you?

As for temporal causality and the stories we tell therein, well this is a whole other story! I should probably address this at another time.

Thanks for an interesting ramble! :)

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