Unthinkable: Who’s running the show, you or your brain?
The question of whether the brain is paramount has profound implications for all of us
if we think of the mind not as an object but as a process, or an emergent state of the brain – in the way that life is an emergent property of a cell or a living organism – then you have much less of a problem in thinking how the mind, or mental states, emerge from brain states.
The nature of the mind has vexed philosophers and scientists for centuries. Though seemingly of esoteric interest, the issue has profound implications for all of us.
Where does your sense of “self” come from? Are you, as consciously understood, merely the by-product of the 3lb of neurons, other cells and blood vessels inside your skull? Have you a soul that outlives your body? Is there, in fact, a “ghost in the machine”, to use the phrase of British philosopher Gilbert Ryle (when dismissing René Descartes’s mind-body dualism)?
Audio: Dr Kevin Mitchell
- Unthinkable: Can a machine have a mind of its own?
- Unthinkable: Who decides what it means to be a person?
- Unthinkable: Who’s running the show, you or your brain?
- Unthinkable: How far should we go to improve ourselves and our morality?
- Unthinkable: Is the passing of time just an illusion?
- Unthinkable: Is scepticism a sustainable philosophy?
The mind arises solely from the activity of the brain.
What sort of thing is the mind?
Kevin Mitchell: “Part of the problem with the debate that has gone on for centuries is when we say “the mind” it sounds like an object, or a thing that presumably should be made of some stuff – immaterial stuff, even though that phrase is an oxymoron, really – and then you have this huge problem of how that stuff interacts with the stuff the brain is made up of.
“But if you change that, and think the mind is not an object but a process, or a property, or an emergent state of the brain – in the way that life is an emergent property of a cell or a living organism – then you have much less of a problem in thinking how the mind, or mental states, emerge from brain states.”
How has neuroscience added to the stock of knowledge around the mind?
“Neuroscience has over the last century or so really demonstrated this correspondence between brain states and mental states, and the evidence from that comes from lots of different areas. One of them is you can actually look at the activity of the brain and see the parts of the brain that are active when mental states are happening.
“Even more powerful is that you can disrupt mental states by changing the activity of the brain. You can do that with drugs, for example. Or you can stick electrodes in somebody’s brain: you can give a little zap and somebody will have a mental state, and so on.
“All of that together really constitutes a pretty strong explanatory framework. We can manipulate mental states in a predictable kind of way and we don’t actually need anything else in our overall theory of how they emerge except for brain states.”
But can neuroscience explain all mental states? What about our broader sense of self-awareness, or consciousness?
“The main thing that is left to explain is exactly that: consciousness or the subjective experience. So I can say that if I zapped your visual cortex I can make you see a patch of purple out in the world in a certain position, and that might be an accurate statement but what it doesn’t capture is why it feels like something for you to have that experience. There is no real strong reason why it should feel like anything.