Human Exceptionalism

The Mystery of Human Life–Bioethicist Writes “Our Brains Are Not Us”

Neuroethics is a radical new field within bioethics that, from what I have seen so far, seeks to rubber stamp every brave new world manipulation of the human being imaginable.

That point aside, one area of discourse within the field is an attempt to precisely define the nature and workings of the human mind. Many believe that our minds are us, and moreover, that what we think of as “mind”  is actually simply a fiction created by our brain neurons popping.  But now, a bioethicist argues that it ain’t so, Joe. From the piece (no link) “Our Brains Are Not Us,” (Bioethics, Volume 23 Number 6 2009 pp 321–329) by University of Calgary philosopher, Walter Gannon:

In The Astonishing Hypothesis, Francis Crick confidently asserts that we ‘are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.’  Similarly, Jean-Pierre Changeux states in Neuronal Man that ‘all forms of behavior mobilize distinct sets of nerve cells, and it is at their level that the final explanation of behavior must be sought’. Further, Joseph LeDoux states that the underlying theme of his book, Synaptic Self, is that ‘you are your synapses.’…This neuroreductionism motivates the claim that our minds are just a function of and thus reducible to our brains. Mental states are constituted solely by brain states. We are essentially our brains.

That would make us mere automatons, it seems to me, which our experience demonstrates isn’t true. Gannon also rejects the idea:

I challenge and reject neuroreductionism by arguing that the mind emerges from and is shaped by interaction among the brain, body, and environment. The mind is not located in the brain but is distributed among these three entities as the organism engages with and constructs meaning from its surroundings. Our capacity for desires, beliefs, intentions, and emotions, and to deliberate, choose, and act, is grounded in the fact that we are embodied and embedded minds. We are embodied minds in the sense that our mental states are generated and sustained by the brain and its interaction with external and internal features of our bodies. We are also embedded minds in the sense that the content and felt quality of our mental states is shaped by how we are situated and act in the natural and social environment. We are constituted by our brains but are not identical to them. The brain is necessary but not sufficient to account for all the physiological and psychological properties that make each of us a unique person. The mind is not based solely on brain structure and function but on the continuous interaction of the brain with the body and the external world.

Interestingly, this also impacts the argument over brain death. Dr. D. Alan Shewmon, of UCLA, rejects brain death because he believes our body as a whole is the central integrator of the organism, rather than solely the brain, based on a few “brain dead” patients living for many years, which he states, would not be possible if brain death was truly dead.

Be that as it may, the idea that we are just our brains makes no more sense than we are just our genes. As Gannon points out, it would be an end to personal responsibility, because it misses what gives us free agency:

Steven Rose endorses the same nonreductionist model of the brainmind relation that I have defended. Rose states: “‘We’ are a bunch of neurons, and other cells. We are also, in part by virtue of possessing those neurons, humans with agency. It is precisely because we are biosocial organisms, because we have minds constituted through the evolutionary, developmental, and historical interaction of our bodies and brains (the bunch of neurons) with the social and natural worlds that surround us, that we . . . as humans, possess the agency to create and re-create our worlds.”

Indeed, we do–which is part of what makes us exceptional. Still, I suspect Gannon is also a reductionist, that we are more than our brains, bodies and the way they mediate our experiences. Rather, I think that the totality of who and what we are is not determinable through purely scientific methods. In the end, there will always be an element of mystery–the answers to which people will continue seek in the realms of philosophy, spirituality, world views, and religion.