Jan 4, 2005

if I only had no brain

Update: A hearty welcome to readers of The Loom.


This meme shows up in the weirdest places. And I quote:
Or consider a still more striking example. The December 12, 1980, issue of Science contained an article by Roger Lewin titled “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?” In the article Lewin reported a case study by John Lorber, a British neurologist and professor at Sheffield University:
There’s a young student at this university,” says Lorber, “who has an IQ of 126, has gained a first-class honors degree in mathematics, and is socially completely normal. And yet the boy has virtually no brain.” The student’s physician at the university noticed that the youth had a slightly larger than normal head, and so referred him to Lorber, simply out of interest. “When we did a brain scan on him,” Lorber recalls, “we saw that instead of the normal 4.5-centimeter thickness of brain tissue between the ventricles and the cortical surface, there was just a thin layer of mantle measuring a millimeter or so. His cranium is filled mainly with cerebrospinal fluid.
Is it really possible for someone with nearly no brain to magically maintain cognitive function? Is this the killer dualist anecdote, proving the mind-body gap not only unbridgeable, but a complete red herring?

Skepticism is in order. John McCrone writes,
Lorber's claims were never publicly refuted. And Lorber – who died in 1996 – stuck firmly to his story, claiming that in 500 CT scans he had found many hydrocephalics with hardly any brain left above the level of the brainstem and yet living ordinary lives (Lorber, 1981). So a little detective work was needed to get to the bottom of this one.

Talking to colleagues and contemporaries of Lorber, it was revealed he was probably greatly exaggerating the extent of brain loss in his cases. Said one source: "If the cortical mantle actually had been compressed to a couple of millimetres, it wouldn't even have shown up on his X-rays." Another agreed, adding that brain scans with modern techniques such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) show stretching, but not much real loss of brain weight with slow-onset hydrocephalus. He says the brain structure adapts to the space it is allowed: "The cortex and its connections are still there, even if grossly distorted."

Sufferers with hydrocephalus also report many subtle symptoms that don't show up in standard tests of cognition. They do well on basic reading and arithmetic or IQ-type questions, but struggle with focused attention, spatial imagination, general motor co-ordination, and other skills that rely on longer-range integrative links across the brain. This fits a picture of a brain in which all the cortical processing regions are in place but where the white matter - the wealth of insulated connections that actually occupies much of the centre of the cerebral hemispheres - has been pulled out of shape.

So Lorber's results were striking but overplayed. And certainly the rise of neuroimaging over the past decade ought finally to have put paid to this long-running myth about the 10 percent brain. One of the most important lessons from the first scanning studies of brains actually caught in the act of thinking - with areas lighting up with increased metabolic activity – was just how widespread were the patterns of activation for the most minor mental responses. No areas were silent, just relatively active or inactive in forming the reaction to the moment.
We need our brains. It's that simple.

18 comments:

Matthew Anderson said...

"We need our brains. It's that simple."

1) I've never heard a dualist argument rooted in anything like the anecdote provided.
2) The conclusions of the essay don't entail your summary. He concludes that when we use our brain, we are using all of it at the same time. This is a very different statement than yours, which suggests that we cannot persist or function without our brains. A dualist could hold that we can persist without our brains and consistently accept the conclusions of this article.

Jim said...

1) Bill Dembski, for starters (the first link above quotes that very same Dembski article).

2) "A dualist could hold that we can persist without our brains and consistently accept the conclusions of this article." The piece was intended to knock down Lorber's example, which is, to my knowledge, the lone instance of anything like a brainless mind; my conclusion, granted, is inductive.

1) Centuries of human experience (especially the last few decades of neurological research) compel us to believe that the brain is the seat of cognition
1a) Probing certain sectors of the brain provokes specific, consistent mental events (visual and auditory hallucinations)
1b) Removing certain sectors of the brain leads to specific, consistent mental deficits (agnosias)
1c) Cutting off oxygen to the brain, and the "brain death" that follows, signals the end of cognition

2) No credible evidence suggests anything otherwise, hence

3) The brain is the seat of cognition, and its destruction means the end of cognition

I reiterate: Lorber's anecdote was the supposed defeater for (2); its credibility is zero. Where is the evidence that, other than in the musings of dualist philosophers, cognition survives brain death, or is even possible without some sort of physical substrate, never mind a brain?

mynym said...

I do this from your own words.

"The brain is the seat of cognition, and its destruction means the end of cognition...."

Yes, the brain is the seat of sentience. And like a chair that you sit in, is not you. Although, if you do not have a seat then you cannot sit down.

Also, you went from citing someone who says it is a "striking" but "overplayed" example of the distinction between mind and brain to this nonsense: "It has zero credibility."

Wrong, your own words indicate that you do think that the position of the mind has credibility. I.e., it is like you and your brain is just the seat that you sit in.

Of course, there is always the possibility that you will write sentences with an increasing lack of sentience. And that would just make you a mental retard, one with a retarded mind, by retarding the mind by the brain.

There is more to it than the anecdotes. They are just a convenience to get people thinking.

mynym said...

If you only had a mind.

Matthew Anderson said...

If you notice, I said, "I've never heard a dualist argument rooted in anything like the anecdote provided."

To cite Dembski's article as a counterexample misses the point. Dembski uses this example and the example of Pasteur (which may constitute evidence) in order to criticize supervenience. His earlier criticism of reductionism employs the standard "in principle" impossibility of reducing mental states to neurophysical states. This in-principle metaphysical objection is what grounds almost every dualist argument in the books. See JP Moreland's intro in William Lane Craigs recent Philosophy of Religion anthology.


2) Why do you want empirical confirmation for the existence of the mind (which seems to be what your asking for)? The arguments for irreducibility don't persuade you? What you dismiss as the "musings of dualist philosophers" in-principal irreducibility of mental to physical states, an irreducibility that the essay you originally summarized(?) fails to address.

Jim said...

Mynym: I grant that I might overstate the case by saying the Lorber anecdote has "zero credibility"--but I might not, since it flies in the face of what I pointed out above concerning the brain, which is based on mountains of experience. (I'd recommend a neuropsych textbook as a place to start, or the works of Oliver Sacks to learn about particular agnosias and other brain disorders.) Correlation, to be sure, doesn't equal causation--but try starving your brain of oxygen for a few minutes, and watch what happens to your powers of cognition. As for the rest of your comments, I leave them untouched, since I can't see what exactly it is I'm supposed to respond to.

Jim said...

G.K.C.: Dembski has quoted Lorber's work extensively in support of his rambling attacks on materialism and naturalism; type "Lorber" and "Dembski" on Google and you'll see what I mean. I'm sure that other thinkers are far more cogent in their defense of dualism than Dembski (who seems to disapprove of substance dualism in the above-cited article).

As to the "in principle" objection, I have an analogy: if a philosopher tells me, "in principle," "ontologically," that human (powered) flight is impossible--perhaps because he has a philosophical view of the universe that says, at the base, "A place for everything, and everything in its place," and human flight is going out of humanity's place in the cosmos, what am I to do when I see, contra the "ontologically impossible," an airplane scooting across the sky? I can either dismiss this new evidence on face, or go back and reexamine my principle. It may represent, as Huxley put it, "the slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact." Which is why I was so interested in the Lorber anecdote in the first place; if it is true, as Dembski has quoted R.W. Gerard elsewhere, then "... most of our present understanding of mind would remain as valid and useful if, for all we know, the cranium were stuffed with cotton wadding," which, as I am trying to point out, is patently ridiculous, and ignores every real advance in neuroscience over the past 50 years.

If dualism is "metaphysically necessary," so be it--or, let us revisit our metaphysics, tackle the problems, and struggle out of our ignorance. Impossibility on principle is more debilitating to the advancement of knowledge than "promissory materialism."

Jim said...

Science

marches on...

Matthew Anderson said...

As to the "in principle" objection, I have an analogy: if a philosopher tells me, "in principle," "ontologically," that human (powered) flight is impossible--perhaps because he has a philosophical view of the universe that says, at the base, "A place for everything, and everything in its place," and human flight is going out of humanity's place in the cosmos, what am I to do when I see, contra the "ontologically impossible," an airplane scooting across the sky? I can either dismiss this new evidence on face, or go back and reexamine my principle. It may represent, as Huxley put it, "the slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact." Which is why I was so interested in the Lorber anecdote in the first place; if it is true, as Dembski has quoted R.W. Gerard elsewhere, then "... most of our present understanding of mind would remain as valid and useful if, for all we know, the cranium were stuffed with cotton wadding," which, as I am trying to point out, is patently ridiculous, and ignores every real advance in neuroscience over the past 50 years.

If dualism is "metaphysically necessary," so be it--or, let us revisit our metaphysics, tackle the problems, and struggle out of our ignorance. Impossibility on principle is more debilitating to the advancement of knowledge than "promissory materialism."

I'm not sure what you mean by this response. One can still hold to substance dualism and accept the advances in neuroscience for what they are, namely a better understanding of the causal processes of the brain. However, "promissory materialism" can't jump an in-principle objection, no matter how far it leaps. That doesn't mean we haven't learned a lot about the brain, and it certainly doesn't (contra Dembski!) reduce the brain to "cotton wadding." Why do you think substance dualism inhibits science again? I don't think it's debilitating in the least.

It seems when you suggest we "revisit metaphysics" in light of the neurosciences, you presume that we should let science guide philosophy. Why?

Also, not all principles are revisible in light of scientific conclusions. In fact, some principles might constitute justification for rejecting some "scientific" conclusions.

mynym said...

The simple fact is, you're using words wrong.

As to cotton,
"But the brain is clearly not composed of cotton wadding, nor of any material exhibiting comparable simplicity. So why is there any reason to hope that the brain can account for intelligence? The answer is found...." (emphasis added)

Of course it would be ridiculous, that's why he says it is clearly not the case. Why did you distort what he said and then imply that I should read a textbook? How do you know that I haven't? Do you assume that everyone who reads such a textbook necessarily places matter over mind?

The reason you "can't see" how to answer what I said of what is right there in your own words is because you already assumed dualism. You assume it yourself, even as you try to abuse science to deny it. There are ways to say what you said, without assuming dualism. But that's not what you said.

You say that the brain is the "seat" of cognition. As if one's sentience is different than what it sits on.

Does this assumption of dualism that mean that your thoughts are "ridiculous," have zero credibility and are probably ignorant and anti-science? You have thrown a lot of attempted emotional conditioning in there, inbetween the normal philosophical discourse.

I am more of a satirist than a philosopher. I'm interested in all this that goes on inbetween the lines.

Maybe it would be helpful for you to learn it too. Besides, you talk like a university professor and if that is so, it will be helpful for you to learn a different mode of communication so that you don't keep boring students out of their minds.

Yes, the minds that you do not believe exist. It's little wonder that students get bored out of them.

Note that science itself is based on sentience. So maybe you are anti-science. Cotton wadding, anyone? It is more matter, in more motion, after all.

Jim said...

Mynym: Here's where I think Dembski falters: he wants a serious sort of dualism, but not "substance dualism," and never shows how an alternative is workable or cogent. The original intent of the post was not to knock down dualism, mind you, but to knock down a particular set of anecdotes that certain anti-materialists use to say "Ha, so the brain really isn't central to consciousness!"

Your purpose may be to get people thinking, but Dembski's, in this arena as in his "attacks" on evolution, is to cloud people's thinking.

I am doubtless uncharitable to Dembski, and I am certainly not infallible in my own reasoning. But Dembski's extended argument from ignorance, in using such canards as the Lorber anecdote and the "cotton" quote, is representative of his metaphysical ax-grinding and quote-mining strategies in general.

I appreciate your barbed criticisms, and do take them to heart. But also realize that mind, for me, is a metaphor as much as "heart" is. I'm sympathetic to Thomas Szasz's position that "mind" is what the brain does (and is a verb); I'm interested in property dualism and that idea that mind is a property of the brain (similar, I suppose, to epiphenomenalism). But I do have to ask, what is the positive evidence for dualism? Or what is the compulsion to support it, if not only to prop up metaphysics that include the possibility of human immortality? If we have no need for an immortal "soul," the dualist position seems entirely unnecessary.

If nothing else, I am exceedingly aware of the formative nature of my own knowledge on this subject, and am neither a professional philosopher nor a college professor. I bore no students with such discussions, which are kept in the province of this blog, and in the troubled chaos of my brain (mind?).

Anonymous said...

...so our brain...controls our brain?

~B.

Jim said...

I'm not sure what you mean by this response. One can still hold to substance dualism and accept the advances in neuroscience for what they are, namely a better understanding of the causal processes of the brain. One must ask, though, what is the point of substance dualism? What does it explain? As neuroscience progresses, the "mind" seems more and more like a disappearing variable, turning into a zero added to 2+2+0=4. I'm with Michael Shermer on this one--the "mind" looks more and more like "phlogiston" or the "ether."

I may even be with Dembski, too; above I said he's positing a form of dualism, but he seems to want to be monist--his talk of "expanding ontology." What I don't know is how that would fit into any discussion of ontology without invoking pantheism.

However, "promissory materialism" can't jump an in-principle objection, no matter how far it leaps. That doesn't mean we haven't learned a lot about the brain, and it certainly doesn't (contra Dembski!) reduce the brain to "cotton wadding." Why do you think substance dualism inhibits science again? I don't think it's debilitating in the least.I'm afraid I misrepresented Dembski's gist. He wants us to doubt modern neuroscience has anything important to offer to the discussion (the quote about "cotton wadding" ultimately concerns the state of physicalism's explanatory power), and that, thusly, we should reject it. I disagree, and strongly, because of the inductive argument I outlined above, and the examples I linked to. If we are true dualists, what is our attitude about the brain's causality? If mind is a completely distinct substance, by what rules does it operate? What sense does it make to speak of injury to the brain, agnosia, hallucinations, or, really, any cognitive phenomenon if mind is not tied up inextricably in matter? Or, on the other hand, why bother studying neurons, neural networks, holographic theories of consciousness, brain imaging, neurotransmitters, etc., if we can be satisfied with "folk psychology?"

Perhaps my whole rant is against dualism-of-the-gaps, that we must invoke "mind" to preserve mystery.

It seems when you suggest we "revisit metaphysics" in light of the neurosciences, you presume that we should let science guide philosophy. Why?Because "facts are stupid things," and we ignore them at peril of our understanding. If we want to deny the possibility that our metaphysics can be undone by empirical observations, then fine; let us accept any fancies we choose. We can believe that the universe is permeated with invisible, ether-like cats and protest mightily should anyone attempt to point out the extreme empirical difficulties in such a position.

Also, not all principles are revisible in light of scientific conclusions. In fact, some principles might constitute justification for rejecting some "scientific" conclusions.

Granted. But we have to be certain that our principles are in fact true, lest we argue in a circle.

So many thoughts, so little time.

Matthew Anderson said...

"If we are true dualists, what is our attitude about the brain's causality? If mind is a completely distinct substance, by what rules does it operate? What sense does it make to speak of injury to the brain, agnosia, hallucinations, or, really, any cognitive phenomenon if mind is not tied up inextricably in matter? Or, on the other hand, why bother studying neurons, neural networks, holographic theories of consciousness, brain imaging, neurotransmitters, etc., if we can be satisfied with "folk psychology?"Again, to claim that because the brain and mind currently exist and work together does not entail that they of necessity must exist together. Independently existing substances also does not mean independantly operating substances. They could exist independant of each other and not operate without each other. This is what's characterized as "functional holism," a view I think I adhere to. Just because the mind is tied up with matter does not mean it's not inextricable from matter.

"Because "facts are stupid things," and we ignore them at peril of our understanding."Do you think these are accesible independant of theory? The empiricism you presume (that "the facts" are only of a "scientific nature") assumes an underlying materialism. "The facts" are different if done with different presuppositions. Why should we adopt naturalist presuppositions? Because "science" only goes on them? That seems to beg the question.

"If we want to deny the possibility that our metaphysics can be undone by empirical observations, then fine; let us accept any fancies we choose. We can believe that the universe is permeated with invisible, ether-like cats and protest mightily should anyone attempt to point out the extreme empirical difficulties in such a position."You also said in an earlier comment, "But I do have to ask, what is the positive evidence for dualism? Or what is the compulsion to support it, if not only to prop up metaphysics that include the possibility of human immortality? If we have no need for an immortal "soul," the dualist position seems entirely unnecessary."You seem to limit the scope of "evidence" to "science." This, however, neglects the whole fabric of human experience and the fact that the experience of pain is metaphysically irreducible to the experience of C-fibre's firing. You're open to property dualism--it's a short jump to substance dualism. What is "having" the experience of redness if it's not being instantiated in a substance? What you claim is an attempt to "prop up" an immortal soul that is now unnecessary is actually an argument for an immortal soul, the existence of which explains the very evidence you do not admit. The compulsion isn't to "keep an immortal soul" at all costs--it's rather that human experience seems to suggest a soul (and perhaps an immortal one!) at every turn.

Granted. But we have to be certain that our principles are in fact true, lest we argue in a circle.Agreed. The only way of verifying principles for you seems to be through "science," and a science that methodologically excludes the possibility of any sort of non-physical explanation or causation. Frankly, I think that this doesn't take seriously the role philosophical presuppositions bear on both our scientific research (the questions we ask) and what constitutes scientific evidence (the conclusions we reach). This "scientific evidence" is then used to disprove the existence of the very things that were precluded at the outset. That does seem circular. That's why this is a philosophical issue and not a scientific.

So many thoughts, so little time.

Jim said...

Having a "soul," as it were, does nothing to explain why red feels like red. Try answering the question:

Q. Why does a qualia of "redness" instantiate?

A. Because you have a soul. (Or "because you have a mind.")

or, a slightly different question:

Q. How do qualia work?

A. They are the mind's interaction with the brain.

What, pray tell, has been explained?

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the hard problem of consciousness is only obliquely related to ontological dualism. One could be a spiritual dualist, believing in a spiritual realm entirely different from the physical realm, and still believe that humans do not have anything like a "soul." (Or, on a more topical note, that "mind" and "brain" are separate "substances.")

That you consider it a "short leap" from property dualism to substance dualism is, I would posit, just a reflection of your strong theist biases. As to the concerns about empiricist reasoning in a circle, notice that I've been talking about disconfirming evidence (the Lorber evidence) as being different from positive evidence. The lack of positive evidence for dualism isn't a "defeater," as I already have acknowledged, but it does lead me to wonder what dualism "explains," as I pointed out above.

I'm curious as to your thoughts on Demsbski's call for an "expanded ontology," since he's satisfied neither with physicalism nor with substance dualism.

mynym said...

"But also realize that mind, for me, is a metaphor as much as 'heart' is."

I think that all metaphors are a way of dealing with the metaphysical. I think this is one big reason that humans are not as humus. They are using something physical to be a symbol of thought. I am content with this. I start with this. I do not feel the need to deny the metaphorical in favor of literalizing the mind into the brain and so on.

You seem to want to literalize all metaphors. Yet if you're going to do that then you need to be consistent. My first point here is that you haven't been. The brain is a "seat" for something else? No, it is.

You can't have any transphysical type of being sitting on it, etc.

" But I do have to ask, what is the positive evidence for dualism?"

I'm pretty sure that all you are doing, in the end, is asking for physical evidence for the transphysical or metaphysical.

I hope you are not surprised when you do not find it.

If you were willing to look for more than physical evidence for such things then I would begin to say, "Look at this. Look at that."

But as long as you demand physical evidence for the non-physical, I cannot see how you can see the evidence that there is on these matters.

I suspect that you would be nice to Dembski if he was here because he is far nicer than I and somehow, you are nice to me.

I may not be nice back. I am not much for nicety for its own sake, as some scholars are.

Here is an interesting question, what would be evidence of the transphysical or minds? I.e., what would you accept? How would it look in the physical? Would it be as an imprint? For if there was a transphysical state of being, it could not be of the physical itself. It would be in it, not of it. That is the way the apostle Paul actually stated the current state of human ontology.

You would not be able to put it in a test-tube and say, "There, there it is." So, what would you accept as evidence of it?

Matthew Anderson said...

Having a "soul," as it were, does nothing to explain why red feels like red. Try answering the question:

Q. Why does a qualia of "redness" instantiate?

A. Because you have a soul. (Or "because you have a mind.")

or, a slightly different question:

Q. How do qualia work?

A. They are the mind's interaction with the brain.

What, pray tell, has been explained?
I'll echo mynym here. Nothing has been explained, if the only explanation of the phenomena permissible is in scientific terms. By suggesting that nothing has been explained, you've begged the question about whether naturalism can cross the explanatory gap. Again, this doesn't mean that it's a "science stopper," just that the phenomena can't be explained in solely scientific terms.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the hard problem of consciousness is only obliquely related to ontological dualism. One could be a spiritual dualist, believing in a spiritual realm entirely different from the physical realm, and still believe that humans do not have anything like a "soul." (Or, on a more topical note, that "mind" and "brain" are separate "substances.")
Well, you're right. You could hold that, but if you did you would still have the hard problem of consciousness to deal with. The fact that someone who thinks humans are purely physical could believe in a spiritual realm as well says nothing at all about how they would explain consciousness. So I fail to see how this is relevant.

That you consider it a "short leap" from property dualism to substance dualism is, I would posit, just a reflection of your strong theist biases. As to the concerns about empiricist reasoning in a circle, notice that I've been talking about disconfirming evidence (the Lorber evidence) as being different from positive evidence. The lack of positive evidence for dualism isn't a "defeater," as I already have acknowledged, but it does lead me to wonder what dualism "explains," as I pointed out above.Why do you think there's a lack of evidence for dualism? The fact that empirical evidence can't be wholly explained by science seems to constitute good evidence for dualism. As for what dualism "explains," the constraints you put on this are so narrow as to admit only naturalistic conclusions. That seems viciously circular. I fail to see how your comment about disconfirming evidence escapes this objection.

I'm curious as to your thoughts on Demsbski's call for an "expanded ontology," since he's satisfied neither with physicalism nor with substance dualism.I would rather stick with this main thread for now....I can't have too many things going on at once!

Jim said...

Mynym wrote: "For if there was a transphysical state of being, it could not be of the physical itself. It would be in it, not of it."

The "in it, not of it" is the hardest thing (for me, at any rate) to "get" about the possibility of the transphysical. What does such a statement "mean?" Something that is "in" the physical ought to leave an imprint somewhere--or not? Why not? I remember reading Eccles and Popper's "The Self and its Brain," where the two tried to find empirical evidence for dualism; that was along time ago, and I don't remember finding it a success. But the fact that they tried means that perhaps there's a way.

I was duly chastised by an attorney / philosopher friend of mine this past weekend, who claimed I was making category errors in my mind/brain discourse, so it's fun to be beat up from all sides. (He seems like a property dualist, but never has officially committed to that position.)

I think the problems of scientific descriptions hinge on analogical and metaphorical reasoning (my use of the word "seat," for example); this is why even though I sound like a committed physicalist or reductionist, I'm not. (As you know, it's just not as fun to be completely flexible, or at least to sound that way.) It may be that our language is simply inadequate to "get at" reality, or that reality is too much in flux to ever be captured, killed, and mounted on academy walls.

So, I'll ask for non-"scientific" evidence: who, among the dualists, is worth reading?