Essay 64: Neuroscience by Itself Limited

Senators John McCain of Arizona and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts died in recent years of brain tumors (such as gliomas and glioblastomas). It is perfectly reasonable to wonder if neuroscience, neuropathology and brain science might one day be able to vaporize tumors without damaging the “host” brain at all.  Who could possibly be against such progress?  After all, if you had an impacted wisdom tooth and could choose between seeing an oral surgeon at a major hospital or going to a dentist at the time of Plato, you would choose the oral surgeon

These truths obscure a deeper problem in all “reductivist” sciences namely the relationships between the brain and the mind and the person.  This was anticipated by Gabriel Marcel (died 1973) when he wrote in his journal that he puzzled all his life over the conundrum that “I both have a body while I am a body…having and being are twined around each other.”

The outstanding French philosopher Paul Ricœur (died in 2005) gives us a useful hint:

“To the extent that the body as my own constitutes one of the components of mineness, the most radical confrontation must place face-to-face two perspectives on the body—the body as mine, and the body as one body among others.  The reductionist thesis in this sense marks the reduction of one’s own body to the body as impersonal body.

“The brain indeed differs from many other parts of the body, and from the body as a whole in terms of an integral experience, inasmuch as it is stripped of any phenomenological status and thus of the trait of belonging to me, of being my possession.  I have the experience of my relation to my members as organs of movement (my hands), of perception (my eyes), of emotion (the heart), or of expression (my voice).  I have no such experience of my brain. In truth, the expression ‘my brain’ has no meaning, at least not directly: absolutely speaking, there is a brain in my skull, but I do not feel it. It is only through the global detour by way of my body, inasmuch as my body is also a body and as the brain is contained in this body, that I can say ‘my brain.’

“The unsettling nature of this expression is reinforced by the fact that the brain does not fall under the category of objects perceived at a distance from one’s own body. Its proximity in my head gives it the strange character of non-experienced interiority.  Mental phenomena pose a comparable problem.”

(Paul Ricœur, Oneself as Other, University of Chicago Press, 1994, page 132)

In other words, the removal of brain tumors such as glioblastomas or the alleviation of migraine headaches in headache clinics is one level of activity and is perfectly valid and neuro-scientific. On the other hand, the relation between brain, mind, body and self is a complete mystery as sensed by Gabriel Marcel and Ricœur.  It is not mechanistic and we lack the language to captures such resonances.

Money and funding and prestige and their relationship to science keep obscuring the deeper truths.  This is also why excellent TV shows on PBS, such as the recent The Brain Series with Charlie Rose, led by the marvelous Professor Eric Kandel (Columbia University Nobelist) comes across as overly narrow—too narrow and curiously unsatisfying.  At a certain point, ‘mechanistic’ descriptions of phenomena like creativity are not convincing.

The education we visualize and promote here would happily straddle neuroscience and those levels of understanding that are beyond it.

Essay 13: Can Philosophy Educate Us? Somebody as a Some Body

The German philosopher Husserl (died 1938) educates us by positing two levels of “having a body.”

You can get a slightly strange sense of this when you see that “being somebody” could be written as “being some body.”

Husserl raises this issue of the body and in particular one’s own body. 

In his masterful book Husserl, David Bell writes:

“In one sense my own body is a physical object, a material, spatio-temporal object like any other: it has a weight, a size, a chemical composition, a history, and so forth. Husserl’s term for the human body viewed merely as a physical object is “Der Koerper.” Quite clearly, however, there is also a sense in which my own body is not given to me in that way: it is experienced and known by me in ways quite different from those in which I experience or know other physical objects. I do not, as it were, stumble across my body in the course of experience in anything like the way in which I come across a building, say, or another person. It is not simply that my own body is very familiar to me, nor even that it is ‘always there,’ like some substantial shadow from which I can never ‘escape.’ It is rather that, at a certain level, my ‘relation’ to my body is not strictly speaking a relation at all: it is not, at least, a relation between me and some other object.

“Although my body is certainly a physical object, and is, moreover, the intentional object of many acts of perception, conception, and memory, there is also a sense in which my own body is a subject. And in this sense my body is unique amongst intentional physical objects in that it belongs, also, on the subjective side of the intentional relation.

“My body can feel tired, my legs can feel stiff, my hands can feel the warmth of the fire, and so forth. My own body is an object-subject, or a body-subject.

“Husserl calls the human body viewed in this way ‘der Leib,’ a term which I shall translate as ‘the living body.’ My ‘living body’ is immediately expressive: when I am tired, or amused, or in pain, it is that object which yawns, smiles or cries out.”

(David Bell, Husserl, Routledge, 1991, page 208)

Gabriel Marcel, who taught at Harvard in the 50’s, wrestles with this Husserl point when he (Marcel) writes in his “metaphysical diary” that he has been perplexed for decades over the fact that “I both have a body while I am a body.” Having and being are entwined in a way that I can’t separate.” I have and I am are coiled around each other.

We have an intuitive sense of these entwinings when we say of a person, “he’s a busybody” (busy body/busybody) or “I am somebody” (some body) and not a nobody (no body).

Husserl restates this thesis this way:

“A human being is not a mere combination or aggregation of one thing, called a body, and another called a mind. The human body is through and through a conscious body: every movement of the body is “full of mind”–coming, going, standing still, laughing, dancing, speaking, etc.”

“When I put my hand too close to the fire, it is, when all is said and done, my hand that hurts.”

(David Bell, Husserl, Routledge, 1991, page 209)

In other words, you have a body and your body has you and you have each other. The body you weigh on the scale in the bathroom is one among several “players” and cannot be understood only as a mechanism.

In daily life, we do glimpse this a bit when we use worlds like psychosomatic.

Husserl was Heidegger‘s teacher and mentor.

Essay 4: What Is Meta-Intelligence?

You have heard of meta-data and perhaps meta-analysis.  In meta-analysis you don’t (say) study climate change directly, rather you study all the research and all the reports and papers on climate change trying to sense a grand overall conclusion and implication rather than simply making a synopsis or summary.

Meta-intelligence is in this spirit because it wants to get an overview of other overviews, a view of views.

Let’s do one example, namely, Paul Tillich (died in 1965), the famous German-American thinker.

He “walks around” human language and notices:

“Language… has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”

He also senses a missing dimension in all modern science:  “Whenever man has looked at his world, he has found himself in it as a part of it. But he also has realized that he is a stranger in the world of objects, unable to penetrate it beyond a certain level of scientific analysis. And then he has become aware of the fact that he himself is the door to the deeper levels of reality, that in his own existence he has the only possible approach to existence itself.”

(Systematic Theology IUniversity of Chicago Press, 1951)

In other words, we design equations and experiments that suit our ways of seeing and thinking, our brains and nervous systems and we never really know if we are glimpsing eternal laws of nature or patterns that satisfy us given the way we are.

We can’t see what part of our scientific world-view is a construct as opposed to a pure discovery.

We never really know: are these problems?  Difficulties?  Puzzles?Mysteries?

Gabriel Marcel, the French thinker who taught at Harvard in the 1950s, teaches us that a puzzle is something we might successfully surround and solve while a mystery is something that surrounds us and cannot be solved like a puzzle, an issue, a query, a question.

Meta-intelligence is aware of these levels and layers and doesn’t fall into a Descartes-type “whirlpool of doubt” since it accepts the great historian Pieter Geyl’s (died in 1966) category of the existence of “arguments without end” (i.e., finality is always “shy”).