Meat, minds and making sense: part 2.

Although I have never seen it I am fairly confident that inside my head is about 1.5kg of meat that looks like a very large walnut and has the consistency of thick porridge. I am even more confident, because I have direct experience of it, that there is a mind which has enabled that last sentence to be written. I am also aware that this particular meat and mind have an intimate association and that somewhere in that association is the “I” that is aware of it (though I suspect this may be no more than a convenient fiction).

As you might gather my knowledge of neuroscience and the problems of consciousness are probably no better than the next person’s. I do read popular accounts and I do have easy access to my brother who is a neuropsychologist (his book Into the Silent Land is highly recommended) but I certainly cannot claim any expertise. What I do have is an interest and that is what brought me to reading the discussion between David Eagleman and Raymond Tallis which recently appeared in The Observer.

At first I read it simply as the standard to and fro that is the hallmark of these printed exchanges but was soon struck by the similarities between the imagery of the unconscious control of our minds and that of Dawkins’s “lumbering robots” which I wrote about in my last post. Time for a closer look.

In that last post I drew a distinction between the “raw” content of a text, how it gets “framed” and how we might make sense of that framing with our own “critical” understanding. How does this apply to the Eagleman-Tallis exchange?

Although neither of them make specific references to any published papers (other than Eagleman’s own book Incognito) both sides make several explicit statements about the real world.

Eagleman tells us that: “the mental is not separable from the physical”; we are “irrevocably tied” to the brain, and “our personalities, hopes, fears and aspirations all depend on” it. He also refers to “the neural substrate of which we are composed”.

By contrast Tallis says that: “we are not stand-alone brains”. Culture is at least as important. Moral attitudes depend on many things we are conscious of as well as things we are not.

Such contrasts might be expected in what is, after all, presented as two sides of a debate. Nevertheless, much of the raw content is accepted by each side. Tallis accepts that everything about us “requires a brain in some kind of working order”; and Eagleman accepts that culture and brains “operate in a feedback loop, each influencing the other.” The only specific disagreement seems to be the statistics about nominal determinism (eg likelihood of someone called Dennis becoming a dentist), but this isn’t pursued by either of them.

This is important because the difference between the two positions arises not because of disputed content but because of how this raw content is framed. For example, Eagleman’s acceptance that culture is important is framed in such a way that still seems to prioritise brain function. Culture instructs internal drives that end up “written into the fabric of the brain” where it leaves its “signature in the circuitry”.

In short what we have is not so much a clash of content or information but a clash of frames. Moreover, incorporated into that clash are each side’s perceptions and appropriations of the other’s framing. On one side we have Eagleman’s  mechanistic imagery of “automated processes that run under the hood” as we try to “steer the ship of state”. On the other is Tallis’s imagery of a “drama” of social life and the “whispering woods” of a community of minds. Tallis characterises Eagleman’s view as presenting us as “helpless, ignorant and zombie-like” (not so different to Dawkins’s lumbering robots). Eagleman seems to assume that Tallis’s approach is built on “intuition” rather than “study”.

These different framings are seen most clearly in their different understanding of “Umwelt” ie the idea that our view of the world is restricted by limitations on how we view the world. When Eagleman writes about those limitations his reference points are physical and physiological; when Tallis writes about Umwelt he says there must be more to it otherwise “how would we know it?”

To use the language from my previous post, the raw content provides grounds for a good deal of agreement (including Umwelt), but the differences come about because of how each makes sense of that content, what that content is seen as. For one it highlights the importance of the brain, for the other it highlights the importance of ourselves in a community of minds.

How are we to make sense of this? What is our critical understanding of the exchange as outside observers (lay, public, scholarly….)?

Most people (like myself) are not in a position to judge the raw content. Is it accurate? I don’t know. I’m not qualified to judge. I would assume (or at least hope) that Eagleman and Tallis know what they are talking about. This in itself is important since it highlights two things. Firstly, this is presented as a dispute: Eagleman and Tallis are in a much better position than I am to judge the content and they still disagree. Secondly, trust is central to science communication: trust that the content is accurate and also trust in the people who are telling me.

Trust has increasingly become a central issue in sci-comm debates in recent years and for me what is important about trust is not simply the social relations of the various parties involved. Trust is based on meaning, on how we make sense of what we are told and of who is telling us. Trust is therefore not something that can be communicated since meaning cannot be communicated. Meaning is what you create not what I tell you.

Worries about the public understanding of science often centre on the public’s ignorance of scientific information and processes, but the public are actually pretty savvy when it comes to making sense of things. This is what we do everyday and draw on our respective cultures to do so. We may not know about the latest advances in neuroscience but we can make sense of zombies and whispering woods, of machinery running under the hood and having things written into our brains. Using whatever cultural resources we have we can relate to those things, and each one of us will do so in a different way. We may be ignorant but that doesn’t make us stupid.


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