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.