Friday, October 03, 2008

the owner of a head

On his commentary page in the latest issue of New Scientist Magazine, the philosopher A.C. Grayling discusses the mystery of how consciousness emerges from the brain. The brain has physical properties - mass etc - but thoughts do not. He writes that hardly anyone now accepts the dualistic concept that mind and body are separate things. But then he goes on to discuss the encounter that obviously occurs between a flower and the "owner" of the head perceiving the flower.
Exactly what is he referring to when he talks about an "owner" of a mind or body? A self or soul separate from the body?
Even scientific magazines, it seems, are not immune from the dualistic thinking perpetuated by the religions they often criticise.
Here's an excerpt from the piece:
"According to one influential school of thought, some of the ways we think about our minds have to go beyond our investigations of what is inside our heads to include the physical and social environment surrounding our heads. This idea is prompted by the thought that what we know when we understand a concept has to involve a connection between a brain event and something in the world. Here is an obvious example: to understand the concept of a flower, and to be able to distinguish between flowers and other things - trees and buildings say - the relevant physiological occurrences inside the head have to stand in a determinate relationship with flowers and non-flowers outside the head. This relationship, again obviously, is empirical: an actual perceptual encounter between the head's owner and flowers (or at least pictures of flowers) must have taken place at some point.
But a less obvious aspect of having a concept of flowers is that whenever we think of flowers, the relationship between what is happening inside our heads and flowers outside our heads has to remain in some form, in order for our discourse to be about flowers rather than some other thing. Nothing mysterious or magical is implied by this; it just means that to explain the thought of a flower as distinct from a thought of anything else, reference to flowers out there in the world is unavoidable.
The notion that thought is thus essentially connected to the outside world is intended to illustrate the more general idea that "mind" is not describable in terms of brain activity alone. Instead, it must be understood as a relationship between that activity and the external social and physical environment. Philosophers give the name "broad content" to thoughts that can only be properly described in terms of their thinkers' relationship to the environment. Some even argue that there can be no such thing as "narrow content" - that is, thoughts that are specifiable independently of their thinkers' environments and just in terms of what is going on inside the skull.
If it is right that all content is broad content, then the implications are very great. It means that understanding minds involves much more than understanding brains alone. It involves understanding language, society and history too."
- A.C. Grayling
New Scientist, 4 October 2008
The implication is also this: if a self exists, it must be singular, and it must be co-extensive with the entire world.

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