De-ontologizing the Brain (from the fictional self to the social brain)

Phenomena at the intersection of neuroscience and psychology such as phantom limbs, much discussed in the wake of Ramachandran’s work (1998, 1999, etc.), when considered in a philosophical light, might seem to imply the necessity of the first-person perspective, made popular by Nagel (1979) but stemming from the central insights of the phenomenological tradition (Husserl and Merleau-Ponty in particular).

But it is possible to formulate a materialist response to this first-person challenge. For this response to be effective, it will have to take account of, indeed include, the theme of embodiment (F. Varela, S. Kelly). However, in order to not to reinvest brain or body with the mysterious character that the materialist approach has stripped from the ‘first person’, the vision of the brain here must also be what Andy Clark called an embedded vision, that is, locating brain not just in an embodied context but also in the social world, in the network of symbolic relations. This is what I mean by “de-ontologizing the brain.”

The brain thinks, not man. Man is just a cerebral crystallization.
It may be impossible to have a disembodied pain.
There can be awareness of visceral circumstance.

I’m not here to argue for a position on phantom limbs or other interesting workings of the corporeal imagination, what La Mettrie called the “magic lantern” working within the brain. Instead, I’d like to point out some interesting philosophical issues phenomena such as phantom limbs raise, for good old-fashioned notions such as the self, and slightly less old-fashioned notions such as self and brain. Namely, if the self has already been deflated – since Hume, one might say, but in recent days since Dennett – what about the brain? Let’s acknowledge from the outset the anti-Cartesian consensus that phantom limbs can no longer be viewed as merely “wishful thinking” on the part of the patient, as Ramachandran points out (Ramachandran et al. [1996]). Consider for instance the fact of volitional control of a phantom limb (as described in the mirror box experiments), and its implications for an integrated vision of body, mind and brain. I hope this approach doesn’t make me into a minor version of what Dennett once charmingly called, referring to himself, “a cop at Woodstock” – in his case, a reductionist materialist philosopher at a meeting on quantum physics and consciousness – but that remains to be seen.

My argument runs as follows:

  1. What do phantom limbs seem to imply? The first-person perspective.
  2. But a materialist response to this first-person challenge is possible. Further, it has to be an embodied materialist response.
  3. However, in order to not to reinvest the brain with the mysterious character that the self has lost, this must also be an embedded vision of brain, not just in the body but in the network of symbolic relations: the so-called “social brain” and the notion of prosthesis. This is what I mean by “de-ontologizing the brain.”

1. What do phantom limbs seem to imply? The first-person perspective.

Phantom limbs and agnosias – cases of abnormal presence or absence of parts of our body – seem like handy illustrations of an irreducible, first-person dimension of experience, of the sort that will delight the phenomenologist, who will say: aha! there’s an empirical case of self-reference which externalist, third-person explanations of the type favoured by deflationary materialists, cannot explain away, cannot do away with. As Merleau-Ponty would say, and Varela after him, there is something about my body which makes it irreducibly my own (le corps propre). Whether illusory or not, such images (phantoms) have something about them such that we perceive them as our own, not someone else’s (well, some agnosias are different: thinking our paralyzed limb is precisely someone else’s, often a relative’s). One might then want to insist that phantom limbs testify to the transcendence of mental life!

Although the materialist might agree with the (reformed) phenomenologist to reject dualism and accept that we are not in our bodies like a sailor in a ship (Descartes himself was much more bothered by the problem of the union of body and soul than the ‘textbook Descartes’ was), s/he might not want to go and declare that “the mind does not use the body, but fulfills itself through it while at the same time transferring the body outside of physical space” ; that’s early Merleau-Ponty. This way of talking goes back to the Husserlian distinction between Körper, ‘body’ in the sense of one body among others in a vast mechanistic universe of bodies, and Leib, “flesh” in the sense of a subjectivity which is the locus of experience.

Now, granted, in cognitivist terms one would want to say that a representation is always my representation, it is not ‘transferable’ like a neutral piece of information, since the way an object appears to me is always a function of my needs and interests. What my senses tell me at any given time relies on my interests as an agent and is determined by them, as described by Andy Clark (1997). But the phenomenologist will take off from there and build a full-blown defense of intentionality, now recast as ‘motor intentionality’ (as currently discussed by neuroscientists such as Alain Berthoz and Marc Jeannerod and philosophers such as Sean Kelly), a notion which goes back to Husserl’s claim in Ideas II that the way the body relates to the external world is crucially through “kinestheses”: all external motions which we perceive are first of all related to kinesthetic sensations, out of which we constitute a sense of space. Our body thus already displays “originary intentionality” in how it relates to the world.

This is part of what I mean by the appeal to the first-person dimension. In contrast, for someone like Dennett, phantom limbs and agnosias are, at least as much as they are instances of self-reference, instances of self-deception: we don’t have a transparent relation to ourselves, “you are not authoritative about what is happening in you, but only about what seems to be happening in you,” or, as Andy Clark puts it, “the conscious self is but the tip of the ‘I’ berg.” Phantom limb phenomena merely bring to a light a much wider sense in which we live in ‘intended’ rather than ‘actual’ worlds, i.e., we presuppose an enormous amount of what is there in order to act. Put in an extreme way, “your own body is a phantom, one that your brain has temporarily constructed purely for convenience.” Given this, it’s not a good idea – at least ontologically; the ethical story is different (Locke saw this with his emphasis on the notion of person as a “forensick term”) – to trace everything back to a central, unifying and grounding self(hood):

For your entire life, you’ve been walking around assuming that your ‘self’ is anchored to a single body that remains stable and permanent at least until death […] yet these results suggest the exact opposite – that your body image […] is an entirely transitory construct that can be profoundly altered with just a few simple tricks.

Our self – and its neural correlates – is a construct, at most a “narrative center,” and by that token, it’s a fiction (as first seen by Hume, or perhaps Montaigne). I am a character in a story my brain is making up, “consciousness is a property I have by virtue of my brain’s attributing it to me. My story doesn’t have to cohere completely to be useful.” This fictional self is reminiscent, too, of what emerges from Gazzaniga’s famous split-brain studies (severing the corpus callosum in the case of certain seizures), namely, that in commissurotomized subjects, it is not the ‘whole person’ who does the reintegrating of their world, but one hemisphere of their brain; “the person is utterly unaware of the tricky communicative ploys the brain comes to exploit.” This was arguably already Kurt Goldstein’s point, but he “ontologized” it into a property of the brain and by extension of ‘the organism’ that somehow removed it from the world of causality and mechanistic natural science. I won’t go along with the ontologization, but before I get to this, I’d like to put some more nails in the coffin of the (admittedly ‘undead’) first-person perspective.

As I said initially, phantom limbs and related phenomena seem like ideal cases for the phenomenologist (whether slightly favourable to a naturalistic viewpoint or not), of a bodily state in which the viewpoint of the subject is an irreducible part of the state, such that if it were factored out, that ‘state’ would no longer make any sense, indeed would no longer exist.

2. But a materialist response to this first-person challenge is possible. Further, it has to be an embodied materialist response.

The ‘trivially true’ materialist response here would be to say: these are cases of ‘remapping’ the body map, caused by mismatches between visual and proprioceptive feedback. In other words, these apparently uniquely ‘mindful’ phenomena are nonetheless mechanistically specifiable and explainable. My response would include this point but would add that (a) insofar as such accounts refer back to the uniqueness of our subjective experience, they run into the aporia of opposing the first-person perspective to the third-person perspective and (b) insofar as the present version of materialism allows for embodiment (and is thereby not just a physicalism), it can accommodate such experiences without having to explain them in first-person terms.

To lay out the third-person, externalist perspective, it’s always helpful to remember that there is no homunculus:

The cardinal background principle [for the neurophilosopher] is that there are no homunculi. There is no little person in the brain who ‘sees’ an inner television screen, ‘hears’ an inner voice, ‘reads’ the topographic maps, weighs reasons, decides actions, and so forth. There are just neurons and their connections. When a person sees, it is because neurons, individually blind and individually stupid neurons, are collectively orchestrated in the appropriate manner.

And there are no qualia either. As Dennett argues in “Quining Qualia,” believers in qualia are tied to a picture of the mind as a ‘Cartesian theatre’, in which mental entities are on display before the mind’s eye. To move from, e.g., the reality of colors as properties of physical objects to the reality of color qualia as the properties of internal states is an unjustified inference. One can add that the notion of ‘phenomenal information’ is doubtful – perhaps interesting, and heuristically useful, but in no way more real than the ‘rational part of the soul’. The Husserlian claim that experience itself, qualities and all, contains the ‘essences’ we need to inquire into, is more convincing!

Thomas Nagel’s famous appeal to subjective experience in “What is it like to be a bat?” is an elegant revival or recycling of the phenomenological vulgate from the Continent, a ‘minimal credo’ one could find in Bergson, Merleau-Ponty or even Husserl, but it is not an argument to assert that ‘the mental is subjective and science is objective, therefore science cannot explain the realm of the mental (and materialism is false)’. This is logically true in the same way that ‘All Martians are adulterous, and all adulterous people are meat eaters, so all Martians are meat eaters’ is true, but it says nothing more.

Human and other subjects can have functionally or computationally different states that nonetheless home on the same objective state of affairs, either external or internal. But there are no intrinsically subjective or perspectival facts that are either the special objects of self-regarding attitudes or facts of ‘what it is like’. There are only states of subjects that both function in a particularly intimate way within those subjects and have the subjects themselves and their other states as inevitable referents. And that is all there is to ‘subjectivity’.

More interestingly, and moving towards ‘embodiment’, Paul Churchland has pointed out that we can claim to have a first-person, privileged relation to all sorts of physical things, including our muscles, skin, stomach and bowels (!), what Patricia Churchland has elegantly called “awareness of visceral circumstance.” Muscles and the like can be studied from a third-person perspective, in terms compatible with the scientific representation of the world, but we can also claim to feel things about them which this representation cannot include.

The existence of a proprietary, first-person epistemological access to some phenomenon does not mean that the accessed phenomenon is nonphysical in nature. It means only that someone possesses an information-carrying causal connection to that phenomenon, a connection that others lack.
The materialist can accept that we have “a route of epistemological access” to our own body, which others lack (this is not Merleau-Ponty but David Armstrong!), and thereby also to our mind. But it must be explained: “there remains a genuine obligation on the materialist’s part to give some account of the subjectivity or perspectivalness or point-of-view-ness of the mental”; “the materialist owes the world an explanation of what it is about a mental/neural state that makes its proprietor think of it as subjective.” In other words, instead of denying the existence of introspection, the materialist should try and locate within the physical world, within the overall framework of explanation (as Spinoza did). One place to start, where philosophy still has to catch up on neuroscience, despite brief and passing remarks by the “identity theorists,” is proprioception, precisely inasmuch as it’s my ‘internal’ sense of my body and yet is light-years removed from any aprioristic vision of an “inner sense” or “sense of senses” as in St. Augustine, Kant or the phenomenologist Erwin Straus (see Straus [1989]).
It’s fine that we have a necessarily subjective relation to the world, and that we construct partial versions of it for ourselves (see the work of Walter Freeman, most explicitly, and in a more distant way, the discussion about the “binding problem,” or what Gerald Edelman calls “reentry”). One way of explaining this is to view our perceptual processes as filters, which “take in and retain only a tiny and tendentiously selected fraction of the information that is available in an object under scrutiny.” Hence no two subjects perceive the same object in the same way, including for evolutionary reasons.

Indeed, since it is not merely a physicalism but can appeal to biological information, the embodied materialist standpoint offers plenty of ways to understand individuality, selfhood or agency, from reflections on the developmental process to immunology and medicine. There is no need then to oppose a private (and foundational) self to the body or the brain. Instead of declaring rather dualistically that “It is man who thinks, not the brain,” as Straus does – that is, that brain events do exist but have nothing to do with the world of our experience – the reverse formulation seems more wise: “The brain thinks, not man. Man is just a cerebral crystallization.”

3. However, in order to not to reinvest the brain with the mysterious character that the self has lost, this must also be an embedded vision of brain, not just in the body but in the network of symbolic relations: the so-called “social brain” and the notion of prosthesis. This is what I mean by “de-ontologizing the brain.”

The trick is to not go all the way with embodiment, so as not to end up in what Deleuze, speaking of Merleau-Ponty, called the “mysticism of the flesh.” After all, is there anything metaphysically unique about flesh, skin or the brain which makes them do what they do? My last point, then, is to not get too comfortable with embodiment either, since the brain is necessarily located within the social and symbolic world: this is what I mean by ‘de-ontologizing the brain’.

Namely, if we demystify or deflate some concepts of self and subjectivity by relating such concepts to the reality of the brain – the processes of which are dynamic, distributed, non-centred, dissipative, and include ‘remapping’ –, we shouldn’t then turn the brain itself into a mysterious substance which explains everything; a corrective is needed. If mind and body belong together, as do body and brain, so do brain and world.
Call this the “co-evolutionary” perspective (with Terry Deacon) and emphasize ‘Baldwinian evolution’; call it the “social brain,” in the Spinozist tradition (including Damasio but also Vygotski and Negri ). The idea is that ‘not everything is in the head’, or ‘the skin is not a real barrier’ (think of how much we care about extended limbs, how upset we get if they are severed, including even remote-controlled limbs). This is what Andy Clark calls “scaffolding”: we are inseparable from the “looping interactions” between our brains, our bodies, and “complex cultural and technological environments.”

Think of it in terms of plasticity: the possibility of reviving volitional control and somatic sensations in a phantom arm by simply using a mirror, even when no sensation had been experienced by the subject for the previous ten years, “implies a surprising degree of plasticity in the adult brain.” And this plasticity implies in turn a surprising degree of opportunistic openness towards the non-organic, the artificial, the technological: the biological functioning of our brains themselves “has always involved [using] nonbiological props and scaffolds.” (Such comments on plasticity do not commit me to any particular position with regard either to the hyper-emphasized vision of it known as “neural constructivism,” or, in contrast, to Gazzaniga’s insistence that we actually have less plasticity than is currently thought, or the ‘new innatist’ point that phantom limbs imply the existence of internal representations of our body which we are born with it – as in the example of the fetus which knows how to put its thumb in its mouth without ‘putting out its eye’ ; or, lastly, with regard to the cautionary point that remapping is not always a good thing!)

My emphasis pertains rather to the ‘scaffolding’ dimension, which implies – at the risk of sounding a bit like a practitioner of ‘Theory’ (!) – that the ‘paradigm’ of the phantom limb might not be not so far removed from that of the prosthesis. Given the degree of ‘openness’ of the central nervous system, and on the ‘personal’ level, our ability to identify with non-biological extensions of our body, the ‘artificialist’ perspective, in which body and prosthesis, indeed, body and tool, merge, is not so far off. Just as the “fictional self” is the outcome of the deflation of the ontological unity of self, the “social, cultured, evolving brain” deflates the ontological uniqueness and isolation of the brain. Instead of opposing subjectivity to the natural world, or the body to the tool, we have arrived at a vision of the “productive potential” of the agent as inseparable from a “set of prostheses,” in a process of what Félix Guattari would have called the “production of subjectivity.”

The tool […] has entirely changed. We no longer need tools in order to transform nature […] or to establish a relation with the historical world […], we only need language. Language is the tool. Better yet, the brain is the tool, inasmuch as it is common.

The brain is “common” inasmuch as it is constituted by and inseparable from the network of relations to which we belong. The common brain or social brain generates the fictional self, but really, the fellow-traveler of such a self should be termed the de-ontologized brain.