It is a common and dangerous mistake to think that our minds are no more than electrical pulses in our brains
May 25, 2011

Not all wrong ideas are worth contesting. They are too numerous and will anyway soon disappear, displaced for the most part by other wrong ideas. There are some, however, that cannot be ignored. Those that misrepresent matters of supreme importance, or get in the way of our thinking about them clearly, or are widely accepted, or may have serious consequences, must be challenged.

One idea that ticks all these boxes is the notion that human beings are, in essence, animals; or, at the very least, much more beast-like than we have hitherto thought. It leads to claims, to name a couple, that we are just clever chimps, that our minds are no more than electrical signals in our brains.

There are myriad manifestations of this “biologism.” It is spelled out in thousands of books and articles on so-called neuro-aesthetics, meme theory, neurolaw, and in neuroevolutionary approaches to politics and economics. Brain scans supposedly revealing the secrets of the human mind are now common in newspapers. Its supporters assert, for example, that we can understand visual art better by scanning the brain to study its reaction, or that crime is best explained by an imbalance between the frontal lobes and the amygdaloid body.

I have spent over 30 years arguing against biologism, and have recently written Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen). It is a one-stop shop for those who feel that these claims are wrong, although they cannot put their finger on exactly why. The master assumption underpinning biologism is that humans are essentially organisms rather than people. To understand, educate, work with, and govern them, the theory goes, you need to acknowledge that they are not conscious agents but pieces of living matter subject to the laws of the biosphere. Yet the proposition is rarely stated as baldly as that. Indeed, infuriatingly for the opponents of biologism, its advocates often fail to see where their ideas are leading, or indeed, where they have come from.

Biologism has two strands, which I call Neuromania and Darwinitis. Neuromania rests on the belief that human consciousness is identical with activity in the brain. No one would deny that the brain is a necessary condition of every aspect of our awareness, from the slightest tingle of sensation to the most exquisitely constructed sense of self. But it is not a sufficient condition, and the wrong assumption that it is sufficient is based on elementary confusions, notably between correlation, causation and identity.

Yes, there are correlations between activity in the brain and aspects of consciousness. These may be demonstrated by looking at which parts of the brain “light up” when subjects report certain experiences. (Many of these correlations are not as robust as has been claimed, but that is another story.) It does not, however, follow, that neural activity is a sufficient cause of those aspects of consciousness: that, for example, events seen in the orbifrontal cortex when we look at a beautiful object are the entire cause of our experience of beauty, even less that they are our experience of beauty.

Those who claim that nerve impulses are identical to conscious experiences run into this problem: why don’t they appear identical? There are ways of wriggling around this objection—for example, claiming that neural activity and subjective experiences are two aspects of the same thing, or the same thing seen at “different levels”. But the very idea of different levels implies different levels of observation, which presupposes observation—that is to say consciousness which is precisely what has to be explained.

There is a fundamental problem with the theory that our minds are identical with brain activity. The brain is a piece of matter but there is nothing in its material properties to make it probable that it could on its own make other pieces of matter appear to it—let alone make them appear as the complex world in which we live. The ever-more distant relationship between experience and the mathematised world of physics exacerbates the problem of finding subjective awareness in the material brain as construed scientifically.

There is no conceivable neural account of many aspects of human consciousness. A record of neural impulses cannot explain the simultaneous unity and multiplicity of the moment. I am aware of the computer screen in front of me, of the letters spreading across it, of sunlight outside and birds singing. These things are experienced separately and yet as belonging to a single, present moment. This many-in-one is a much tougher nut to crack than the mystery of the Trinity. Nor can neural activity explain memory, as the material of the brain has no way of representing the tenses of time; indeed, as Einstein emphasised, for physicists, the past, present and future are stubborn illusions.

More important still, it offers no account of the source of “aboutness”: the essential quality of consciousness, which means that my perceptions, beliefs and hopes are about something other than neural impulses. The aboutness of the contents of consciousness—which philosophers traditionally call “intentionality”—is fully developed in human beings, who are conscious of themselves as separate from their worlds of objects, signs and concepts. The failure of neuromaniacs to deal with, or even in some cases to notice, intentionality is of the greatest significance because, as I show in Aping Mankind, intentionality is the ultimate origin of the human sphere: the community of minds, woven out of a trillion cognitive handshakes of shared attention, within which our freedom operates and our narrated lives are led. Trying to find the human world or capacities such as wisdom or love inside a brain is like trying to hear the rustling of a forest in a single seed.

The other pillar of biologism—Darwinitis—also follows from the mistake of identifying the mind with the brain. If the brain is an organ that has evolved to optimise chances of survival (as of course it is), so, according to this theory, is the mind. Darwinitis consequently confuses the biological evolution of the species with the development of our culture. The theory of evolution describes the processes of natural selection which undoubtedly gave rise to H. sapiens. But it is wrong to conclude that if we accept that theory, we must also look for an evolutionary explanation of the genesis and shape of human culture(s) and seek an evolutionary interpretation of art, religions and ethical codes—including those that include the seemingly un-Darwinian altruism of putting someone else’s interest before your own.

Yet Darwinitis is even more vulnerable to attack than Neuromania. Look at the difference between an hour of animal life (even where the animal is another primate) and an hour of human life. Admittedly, appreciating the difference is more difficult where we talk in language that animalises human behaviour and humanises or Disneyfies animal behaviour. Daisy the cow bumps against an electric wire and avoids it henceforth. I decide that I want to improve my chances in life, so I sign up for a degree course starting next year and stock up on tokens from the babysitting circle, so I will have more free time to study. Both Daisy and I may be described as engaging in “learning behaviour” but this occludes profound differences. Those include the way that I have a complex sense of time and a future of timetables, and am dealing with abstract frameworks, institutions, customs, and so on. What’s more, I organise my learning experiences in a way that Daisy does not. We lead our lives, regulating them by shared and individual narratives, whereas beasts merely live them.

Some Darwinitics counter this by trying to biologise the differences. They reach for the notion of the “meme”—a unit of cultural transmission, analogous to the gene, the unit of biological transmission—as a way of closing the chasm between man and beast. It is enough to consider examples of memes to appreciate how desperate this is.

“Tolerance for free speech” is one of the favourites deployed by the eminent phil-sopher Daniel Dennett, a leading exponent of Neuromania and Darwinitis. Only those who believe that a noun phrase such as “tolerance for freedom of speech” corresponds to a discrete neural entity could imagine that these memes can invade a brain-mind, like a parasite, and then be acted on by natural selection. Memes reduce the mind to a lumber room of bric-a-brac. They would also have to be understood and assented to in order to pass between minds, in a way that a gene does not need in order to replicate.

If biologism is so clearly wrong, it is reasonable to wonder why it enjoys such wide currency. Scientism rides on the justified prestige of science. But neuroscience cuts no metaphysical ice. An empirical discipline can hardly have anything to say about why or how there is consciousness, about what makes experience and thus empirical knowledge possible. Biology cannot get underneath itself to explain why, of all creatures, we alone wrote On the Origin of Species.

Many people believe that biologism follows inescapably from evolutionary theory. People often think that I am a creationist or a proselytiser for some religion or other. For the record, I am a humanist atheist, a physician and neuroscientist for whom science is our greatest intellectual monument and its consequences overwhelmingly beneficial. I am an ontological agnostic, not a Cartesian dualist. Just because I deny the identity of the mind with brain activity, does not mean that I think that the mind is a ghost in the machinery of the brain.

I believe there is much work to be done to make sense of a world that contains material objects such as pebbles or brains and mental items such as thoughts and experiences. I do not accept that the only alternative to a supernatural—religious—account of humanity is a naturalistic one. As a doctor, I am not unaware that our bodies are generated by natural processes and that, eventually, the natural world closes over us. But between birth and death we inhabit a community of minds, a human world that goes beyond nature, where we can consciously use what we learn about the laws of nature to ends not envisaged in the biosphere.

This does raise questions about how we came to be so different, where the human mind sits in the material universe, and what are the limits to our ability to transform ourselves. If we reject the notion that neural activity is identical with consciousness, how shall we make sense of the central role of the brain in our conscious lives? We will not make progress with these questions so long as we think we have answered them already. In particular, so long as we ignore the irreducibly relational aspect of human consciousness—its aboutness, its participation in the community of minds, in which subject and object are inseparable partners—we shall get hung up on sterile and inappropriate questions as to where it is located, if not in the brain. There is nothing inconsistent about acknowledging that the neural activity located in the brain is necessary for my awareness of an object or my belief in quantitative easing while denying that either my awareness or my belief can be seen by peering into the darkness inside my skull.

Biologism also matters because it fosters a degraded conception of humanity. John Gray’s black Darwinitic vision in Straw Dogs of humanity as H. rapiens, a species whose life has “no more meaning than that of a slime mould,” is an extreme example. It has, however, been rapturously applauded, so it is not hysterical to suggest that accounts of people as rapacious organisms, in the grip of biological imperatives of which they are unconscious, could become self-fulfilling.

No mistakes that have such wide acceptance as those I have described could be without consequences. They obstruct our path to better answers, to what we are, and to a better understanding of our relationship with the physical world around us.