Is there an I in me?

For several years now, I have been increasingly fascinated by the brain as an organ, and by consciousness as a phenomenon.  These are not topics you can figure out simply by taking some time to muse about them – although I strongly advocate taking time to muse about them and putting some effort into musing about them seriously.  There are, of course, incredibly smart people out there with massive expertise who know and understand things beyond the ken of us mere mortals.  But even they haven’t figured out the brain (or even close; but whoa do they know a lot about it).  Or consciousness: even though, in this case, a number of people – usually philosophers – certainly claim they have, or at least that they *basically* have.

It is worth reading what these folk have to say when they write simplified versions of their views in trade books designed for the rest of us who ain’t on their level.   And these versions can indeed get us to think deep thoughts – however we do that (a mystery of the brain: how does thinking *work* exactly?) – when we decide to do so (a mystery of consciousness: how do we as material creatures decide anything?).  Let me point out here at the beginning that the issues are, well, a bit more complicated than saying: it’s ‘cause we got a brain and we got free will!  There’s been a lot of ink spilled on the seemingly-irresolvable “mind-body” problem for a very long time.

Let me tell you how I puzzle over it personally.  Then I’d be happy to know what you think.

My personal dilemma is based on what I think I know and what I think about what I think I know.  I don’t know as much as I’d like to know and some of what I know is almost certainly wrong.  But I don’t think it’s wrong.  As with most humans, what I think I know I think is right.  Otherwise, I would think something else and think that was right.

What I think I know is that each of us is a material object, necessarily, then, made up of matter.  We have bodies that house organs that are made out of tissues that comprise cells.  OK, so far so good.   I’m an average kinda guy, so I probably have about 30 trillion cells in my body.  These cells all live and die (though none of them knows they are living– and if none of our parts knows we’re alive, how do *we* know we’re alive?), and are made up of other constituent parts, contain our DNA, etc.   All of these things – organs, tissues, cells, DNA, etc. – are made up of molecules which are made up of atoms and …. and it’s turtles (i.e., material) all the way down.[*]

Including my brain.  Again, as an average mortal, my brain has something like 80-100 billion of those cells (neurons) which are all connected to one another through their synapses.  Lots of synapses, for each neuron.  I probably have a thousand trillion synapses that fire, or are supposed to fire (most of them not firing enough, or well enough, as far as I’m concerned).   That’s, well, 1,000,000,000,000,000 synapses.  These are distributed throughout the brain in different lobes and parts of lobes which all have different functions.

Sticking to the very basics: the brain controls our bodily functions – both unconscious (your heart beats and your liver produces bile without your deciding to make it happen) and conscious (you decide to go to the store, scratch your nose, or read a blog post).  The brain also interprets the data received by our sense organs (Did you hear that explosion?  Look at that rainbow!  Damn—that burner is *hot*!).  The brain can also perform an array of unusual cognitive tasks:  it can think, remember, analyze, apply logic, do math, etc.  It can remember what has happened to you before, what you’ve learned before, and how to do something physically (swim; ride a bike; hit a backhand), assuming you ever did it before.  It can decide what to do next and balance the options.  It houses your winsome or not so winsome personality.  It is the center of your emotions, moods, and feelings.  (I’m not saying other body parts are uninvolved.)

Other organs have multiple and life-essential functions, but the brain’s role in our existence is sans pareil.  My point, though, is that it’s a physical organ.  Everything in it is physical, down to the neurons, synapses, cells, molecules, and – and keep going.   If the physical organ of the brain is physically altered, so are you.  If a part gets damaged you can lose your sight, hearing, or other senses; you can lose your ability to speak or move; you can experience a radical and permanent change in personality, to the extent that you will no longer be recognizable as who you are/were (think Phineas Gage); you can have irreversible mood or emotional changes; you can lose your memory; you can lose your ability to generate new memories; you can lose your ability to make decisions; you can lose your ability to *think*.

All this and more can happen if the matter in your brain changes.  My view (starting many years ago, when I began taking Phineas Gage seriously) is that everything we think of as part of our “inner” being – our cognitive functions and abilities, our personalities, our emotions and moods, our memories, our abilities to decide, our thoughts, and even MORE: our views, perspectives, understandings of the world, values, beliefs, and on and on – all these things are rooted in the *matter*  in our brain.

But how can that be?  I certainly *SEEM* to myself to be more than a bunch of molecules thrown together into a bunch of cells that make up tissues that form organs that make up my body including my – brain.  My mind seems to me to be independent of matter.  There seems to be SOMETHING ELSE in me that is driving me, making me who I am, making me work as a particular human being.  I SEEM to have a non-material essence: call it a soul, a spirit, a being.

But I don’t think I do.  It’s matter (turtles) all the way down.  Otherwise the internal aspects of my being would not be altered or completely disappear when the material itself (the tissues in my brain) is damaged or destroyed.  This leaves me with a puzzle.  If I’m all matter, as I think, how can I seem to be far more than that?

It is very easy at this stage of reasoning to commit an error of thinking, which many of you will think is not an error.  And, hey, it’s a free world when it comes to what you want to think about yourself,  so think what you want!  But for ME, at least, it is a very serious error at this point to claim that since we can’t explain this business of cognition, personality, emotion, decision-making, and CONSCIOUSNESS itself on purely material grounds, then we have to accept non-material explanations for it – for example, that there is a God who gave us rational abilities, personalities, emotions, and the like or that there’s some other kind of non-material force to explain us as humans since material explanations just don’t cut it.

The reason that’s an error is that just because we don’t understand something on material grounds does not mean that there has to be a non-material explanation.   This is so easily demonstrated that I really don’t understand why most people don’t see the problem (i.e., why it’s an error).  I myself have simply no clue how to explain how my toaster works.  I plug it in, the coils get hot, I make myself some nice toast.  But how does it *do* it?  I have no idea.  Or my microwave.  Or an internal combustion engine.  Or… most anything else that doesn’t involve what I spend my days thinking about.

The fact I don’t know the material explanations for how things work doesn’t mean there aren’t material explanations.[i]  It just means I don’t know I’m going to do something here I’ve never done before: add an endnote!

Now in response to this I would maintain that you should not be thinking (another error!) that, “Yeah, but that’s different, because some people do know how these things work.  The fact you yourself are ignorant doesn’t mean that these other things can’t be figured out.  It just means that *YOU* don’t know the answer.  But ‘consciousness’ is different.  No one can figure it out on material grounds, even though they try and some claim that have done it (you’ll notice that the confident claims of figuring it out are not accepted by other “experts”).  That’s because they can’t figure it out.  And that’s why there almost certainly is not a material explanation for it.”

I say you should not be thinking that, in my opinion, is because to me, at least, this view is, well, uh, faulty.  Here’s why.  For the vast majority of human history everyone has known that lightning, earthquakes, and epidemics (and tons of other both things) were realities.  They happened.  But no one knew how or why they happened.  Since people didn’t know how or why, they assumed such things were caused by the gods.  But that was faulty reasoning on their part, as we now know. They, of course, had no way of knowing.  But since we ourselves have seen this reasoning fail time after time after time after time – we should not use it ourselves.  We should not say that if we can’t figure why something happens or is the way it is, based on what we know of the material world, then it must come from the spiritual world.

Let me stress: these people (prior to the Enlightenment) who thought such things were NOT less intelligent than we are.  The human brain itself has not evolved significantly in many thousands of years.  You and I are not smarter than Homer, Augustine, or Aquinas.  Sorry, we’re not.  They had no (true) idea about why or how these things happen.  And as a result, since there were no convincing material explanations for them almost everyone assumed that there must, therefore, be non-material explanations.

I refuse to fall into the same trap.  I want to be clear what my argument is.  I am not saying there CANNOT be a non-material explanation.  I am saying that the fact that I don’t KNOW the material explanation is not evidence that there can’t be one.

So does it all go down to presuppositions?  I admit I’m a complete materialist.  But I absolutely don’t think that I simply presuppose that there is a material explanation for what happens in this world, including inside material ole me.  To me everything that *can* be explained in our world all points in that direction, including the dependence of the “self” on the material structure of the brain.  But every reasonably humble materialist will agree in spades that believing that everything is ultimately material is NOT the same thing as saying we understand how every material thing works.  And that means there are tons and tons and tons of things that continue to be very big mysteries to us.

For me, the biggest mystery is whether “There is an I in me.”  I decided to write this blog post.  I have decided that next I will walk my dog and then do some house chores.  My physical body will do what I tell it to do (usually).  My physical brain has made the decision.  But if my brain is in fact completely material (physical) made up of decidedly material neurons, none of which knows it is alive or has free will, none of which can think or make a decision, none of which remembers a single thing about the past or gives a toss about the future, all of which are living only insofar as they are part of a living organism but if were cut out would be dead as a doornail, all of which are made up of molecules that are themselves not living – if all of that is true, as I think it is, how do *I* know that I’m alive, have free will, can make decisions, have memories, and know what I’m doing.  What is actually thinking and making my decisions, if it’s not “I”?  But how can molecules *decide*?

That’s my dilemma.  What do you think?

[i] I should stress that my not knowing how non-material explanations can work also doesn’t mean that there aren’t non-material explanations either.  I’m a materialist simply because I don’t think there are any good reasons (and certainly any *evidence*) that non-material entities that might affect my brain exist, in general, and I see *tons* of evidence for material explanations for just about everything, in general.   And I really shouldn’t be saying this because now I’ll be getting TONS of responses from readers giving me the evidence for God based on their spiritual experiences.  I get that.  It used to be my view too.  But I think there are always material explanations for these experiences too (involving the brain).

[*]The following anecdote is told of William James. […] After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, James was accosted by a little old lady.

“Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.

“And what is that, madam?” inquired James politely.

“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle.”

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”

“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it’s this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”

“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.

To this, the little old lady crowed triumphantly,

“It’s no use, Mr. James—it’s turtles all the way down.”

— J. R. Ross, Constraints on Variables in Syntax, 1967