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Are you brainless or mindless?

07/07/2017

You’ve probably heard the expression “psychiatrists treat mindless brains and psychologists treat brainless minds”. It works because there often seems to be an implicit difference between the fields as to where, if anywhere, the locus of agency arises. Psychology tend to explain causes with thoughts and experiences while psychiatry (and neuroscience) often explain them with synapses and neurotransmitters.

It’s a generalisation of course. I doubt there’s too many people who have a fixed model for the relationship between mind and brain they apply to every question. Most of us probably shift from one set of assumptions to another according to circumstance without thinking much about it. You know, assuming mind in me but mechanism in you. That sort of thing.

Sometimes I see myself as a product of mind-brain dualism. The idea there’s something to me other than the material stuff of my body, and that it observes, influences or maybe even creates what I perceive as time, space and matter. I don’t think the model is particularly true or useful, inasmuch as you can judge it at all, but it’s kind of built in to a lot of my notions about justice and responsibility and is implicit in many of my social interactions. It’s better at accommodating consciousness and free will too. Sometimes I feel there are such things.

There’s at least two common forms of mind-brain monism I keep coming across. In one the brain is the mind. Thoughts, MRI readouts, beliefs, synapses, memories, personalities, neurological pathways, decisions, perceptions, etc are all manifestations of the same thing. In the other the brain causes the mind. Chemical reactions between and within cells are the fundamental impulse behind all the rest. There’s a deterministic link between matter and mind that can completely explain the latter with the former.

I don’t think I’ve got a big stake in any of these models. I’m not sure there’s much point trying to rope reality with ontology. It feels like over-extending a metaphor. And if humane and effective mental healthcare is their measure then none of them seem much use.

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2 Comments
  1. Coincidentally, I was going to post this as my quote of the week tonight.

    ‘Mind is not brain.’

    -Legion – William Peter Blatty

    But I didn’t post it and then I came across your post. I feel that the soul is involved in the mind somehow. The brain is physical and the mind is soul, or connected to the soul and spirit, not even sure what I mean by that, just a weird theory, which is not backed up by science, mind or brain.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never found ‘the soul’ to be a particularly useful concept. Not many people who use the term seem to have a clear notion as to what it consists of and most seem to use is as an ill-defined vessel for their vague hopes/beliefs about individual survival of personality, memories, relationships and/or individual consciousness beyond death. I think it also appeals to our intuition that mechanistic and materialistic models of reality can’t account for our lived experience. We can’t articulate what’s wrong with the models so we insert a ghost into the machine to try to allow scope for the wonder and mystery we know is there somewhere.

    What it does is split ‘reality’ or ‘the self’ into the perishable and concrete and the imperishable and abstract. If there’s a point to making such a distinction I’m not sure what it is. Dialectics and dichotomies can be useful tools for communication or analysis but I think everyone needs to be clear about where the division lies or they just turn into obfuscation. I don’t think reality outside of human attempts to conceptualise it and communicate it is divided up that way.

    But I also think the attempts by neurological essentialists to explain everything in terms of brain functions is woefully misguided. Not because I think there’s something like a ‘soul’ that lives somewhere inside or outside the body and directs it but because it reflects a rather confused materialist/rationalist ontology that simultaneously seeks an executive ‘first cause’ and denies its existence.

    I think neuroscience has become a sort of ‘god of the gaps’ for atheists. There’s general consensus that the brain is very complex and highly interconnected and intraconnected, so anything that can’t be easily and clearly explained by materialist reductionist models is shoved away into some ill-understood recess of the brain. What people who do that don’t seem to get is that everything is far too complex for rationalist reductionism and everything is connected to everything else. So you could use anything at all as the same catch-all explanatory (e.g. “see the world in a grain of sand” as Blake would have it). The advantage of using the brain as the repository of all wisdom is that only arrogant technocrats are so deluded as to think they can understand it and they can dismiss the dissenting views of others on that basis.

    (BTW, a former Australian Prime Minister seems more concerned with the suppository of all wisdom, but it’s widely understood that his brain is not in the usual location.)

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