Questionable quibbles

Dr. Marder of the last post said that when we finally do map out the connectome, we will have only begun to understand the processes and their myriad forms. This brings up the old question, can a brain understand itself? Or will we forever (?) pursue this understanding the same as we do for the universe at large? Can a smaller, less complex (and differently grown or constructed) system understand the larger, more complex system? Only as a model or simulation is the easy, if incomplete answer here.

Connectome picture

Connectome picture

I have also finished E. O. Wilson’s On Human Nature, an excellent read. I very much appreciated his perspective on the integration among biological science, the humanities and social sciences. I obtained my PhD in psychology and have maintained that such departments would be better placed in a school of biology. Anyway, I monitor my reading with my bias towards more vitalistic conceptions and generally disagree with how some phenomena are viewed through a mechanistic metaphor. I found this same old quibble in chapter 9. Here I reacted strongly to Dr. Wilson’s statement that “The mind will be more precisely explained as an epiphenomenon of the neuronal machinery of the brain“. And there I find my difference. Reminding myself from Merriam-Webster that an ‘epiphenomon’ results from other processes and has no causal power, I bring up my usual questionable quibble: Is the mind only a secondary result that can exert no causal power, i.e., an epiphenomenon, or does the mind primarily cause some things, i.e., a phenomenon?

If you have followed this blog I hope you know that I see the mind as the latter, an exceedingly important (to us anyway) phenomenon with a special sense and agency of specific focus. In this I do not discount the evidence from meditation, hypnosis, pain, relief and, dare I say it, placebo medicine, even as I focus on the social emotions, empathic connection and symbolic communication. Memes are mental, mindful productions beyond the epiphenomenal limits, as are art and other sorts of presentational symbols (and I won’t address discursive symbols right now). It is easy to see that the mind has some power.

Some may quibble that mindful actions are determined and not free. In this I follow William James that his first act of free will is to assert that he has free will. Some may quibble that the underlying neurological processes do all the work, not the conscious (embodied) mind itself. In this I follow W.B. Yeats’ final couplet in Among School Children,

Oh body swayed to music, oh brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

And I follow Dr. Langer who certainly taught that understanding life’s vitality in our embodied mind is important to our understanding of human mentality, which brings us back to my usual quibble that remembering and conceptualizing our brains as organically vital is important and that a mechanistic view forgets this along the way, i.e., is an increasingly inept way of seeing the phenomena. While our brain does operate very rapid processes through the quantum discharge of electrical potentials, these pulses are in the service of controlling chemical (hormonal and oh, so many neurotransmitters) release and re-uptake, that then go on to manage the rather isomorphic electrical impulses. A beautiful arrangement with very few, if indeed any, hardwires. So look back at the connectome and see a wonderful soup with small, brief lightning flashes continuing to mix it up. Delicious!

Often I close by saying, “Travel on,” but this seems a lovely place to rest and let it cook for a bit.

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