"Mindless:" don't fall for all-or-nothing thinking

Neuroscience, it’s said, can often answer the obvious questions but rarely the interesting ones.

Writing in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has a go at what the mapped brain says about the self-referential mind.

The neurological turn has become what the 'cultural' turn was a few decades ago: the all-purpose non-explanation explanation of everything. Thirty years ago, you could feel loftily significant by attaching the word 'culture' to anything you wanted to inspect: we didn’t live in a violent country, we lived in a 'culture of violence'; we didn’t have sharp political differences, we lived in a 'culture of complaint'; and so on. In those days, Time, taking up the American pursuit of pleasure, praised Christopher Lasch’s 'The Culture of Narcissism'; now Time has a cover story on happiness and asks whether we are 'hardwired' to pursue it.

We should resist this thinking, according to him.

The really curious thing about minds and brains is that the truth about them lies not somewhere in the middle but simultaneously on both extremes. We know already that the wet bits of the brain change the moods of the mind: that’s why a lot of champagne gets sold on Valentine’s Day. On the other hand, if the mind were not a high-level symbol-managing device, flower sales would not rise on Valentine’s Day, too.

Gopnik calls the debate about "minds and brains" a "myth," one that depends on two competing and enduring claims, neither of which will ever completely prevail. And having had the field much to itself recently, the brains-are-us crowd has encountered a popular resistance. Heightening differences, especially when those differences make their way into the popular media, is all well and good. Scientists and the journalists interested in brain studies have to make a living too.

But I liked Gopnik's idea of truths living "simultaneously on both extremes" because, in one sense, that's what the IdeaFestival is all about. I'm not suggesting that all truths are equal, just that whatever is big-T true about how, for example, the brain produces the sentient magic of choosing based on hypothesized futures - well, that ought to humble us. That truth and others are beyond what we can understand now. They may be beyond what we will ever understand.

On particularly crystalline evenings like the one I experienced Wednesday night, I can stand outside while photons that have journeyed for many thousands of years empty into my eyes and produce the snap, crackle and pop of recognition. Having an amateur's appreciation for the heavens, I know they originate in starry furnaces that are fusing hydrogen and, in other cases, slightly heavier elements. The really interesting question, though, is that even while I can understand that these bodies are under incomprehensible pressures and are releasing a commensurate and staggering energy, I can't begin to fathom how those elemental beginnings would coalesce 13.8 billion years later into this introspective and curious being on a grassy hill slowly scanning Eden, ticking off Antares and Vega, Cassiopeia and Saturn.

It's the interesting questions that demand our attention. And the big-T truths, whatever they may be, are rarely if ever the result of either-or thinking. Nor can they be used in any sentence that includes the phrase "nothing but," as in "X is 'nothing but....'"

Big-T truths are about "this too."

Gopnik's editor gave his piece the title, "Mindless." That works for me. Because binary thinking, whether it be on the subject of neuroscience or any other area that requires serious attention and a willingness to tolerate ambiguity, barely qualifies as thinking at all. Brain scans alone will never explain, as Gopnik says, why "Mozart is more profound than Manilow" in part because - and here's the kicker - we also know that our thoughts are continually changing the medium from which they emerge. "Philosophy" may never "someday dissolve into psychology and psychology into neurology," and that's perfectly fine. Like the observed reality produced in double slit experiments or the confounding truths about physical non-locality from Bell's theorem, meaning that emerges from the stuff of life is both obvious and paradoxical. Do brain maps draw back the curtain on a three pound gelatinous mass that can render the spectroscopic identity of stars? Yes! I can watch that brain at work. But can this lump of matter, the thing that does the thinking and then somehow named itself - ever truly understand itself? That's an entirely different, and more interesting, question.

Stay curious.


Share Alike