The Mind is not the Brain

Some people assume that ‘the mind is what the brain does.’ This is the classic western scientific technique known as “reductionism”. A reductionist seeks understanding by disassembling a thing, an idea or a concept into its basic component parts. This technique works quite well in some regards but not so well in others.

An example would be the examination of the mind. The reductionist will typically explain some mental phenomenon by effectively reducing ‘mental states’ to ‘brain states.’ In other words, scientists want to show that the object of interest, P (e.g. ‘the mind’), can be reduced to objects x, y, and z, – thereby demonstrating that object P is ‘nothing but’ the assembly of x, y, and z.

Now here is where such analysis fails and why science is not always the best tool in the tool shed. The assumption is that all meaning contained in the initial object (P) can be captured by the addition of its individual parts (x, y, and z) is erroneous. Some meaning may be found but other aspects of understanding phenomena will be lost if we use only this method. While it may be true that certain psychological processes are contingent on some neurophysiological activity, we cannot necessarily say that psychological processes reduce to ‘nothing but’ that activity.

Why not? Much of the time we are not dealing with cause and effect, as many medical researchers see things but rather two different and non-equivalent kinds of description. Now this is the critical distinction:

One describes mechanism, the other contains meaning.

Understanding the physical mechanisms of a clock, for example, tells us nothing about the culturally constructed meaning of time. In a similar vein, understanding the physiological mechanisms underlying the human blink, tells us nothing about the meaning inherent in a human wink. I blame Rene Descartes for his mind/body dualism so loved by western reductionists i.e. his “ghost in the machine” analogy. Human beings, and human brains are greater than the sum of their parts.

nov 4 2012 ∞
nov 11 2012 +