September 6, 2015

The Self And Its Brain

It can be argued that there are at least three popular, contradictory notions of the self or person. First, a major tenet of Western philosophy is the existence and importance of a self - the Delphic dictum "know thyself," Socrates's "the unexamined life (of a person) is not worth living," and the Stoics' emphasis on cultivating personal virtues as a means to achieve individual happiness and social harmony. The Enlightenment notion of individuals (persons) not only existing but having certain rights must also be included here. 

Second, Buddhism also acknowledges the existence of the self but this religion's path to happiness and social flourishing involves meditation emphasizing an abandonment or transcendence of self, or a submerging of one's self into Nature.

Finally, the idea that the self is an "illusion" is a popular notion promoted by neuroscientists and a few psychologists and philosophers. That is, the self is an illusion arising from the brain (where does it exist and who/what is having this illusion?) that the "owner of a brain" (another interesting notion), and other brains and their language facilities and bodily speech organs, falsely claim is a self. 

I fully accept that the self or person is somehow a product of and exists initially within the electro-chemical workings of brain tissue. That the self is neither a ghost nor homunculus in the cranium nor an eternal soul existing independent of the living embodied brain.

August 6, 2015

Roundabout III


This article begins by describing neural pathways associated with empathy then goes on at great length to describe empathetic processes at higher levels of analysis. These levels - the psychological, social, and cultural - provide a number of explanations of empathetic processes. These include the formation of concepts of self that have greatest meaning within social contexts and that are fed, maintained, and changed by cultural beliefs and values; the display of social actions based on varying notions of self and others; and the power of cultural concepts to define and animate, and motivate selves and groups.

The key researcher admits this but insists that the solution is in the brain, not in modifying or "renovating" notions of self, others, beliefs, values, and social norms. He writes:

"[T]he picture remains incomplete. We still need to map a host of other empathy-related tasks — like judging the reasonableness of people’s arguments and sympathizing with their mental and emotional states — to specific brain regions. And then we need to figure out how these neural flashes translate into actual behavior: Why does understanding what someone else feels not always translate to being concerned with their welfare? Why is empathizing across groups so much more difficult? And what, if anything, can be done to change that calculus?"

It is implied that psychological and social efforts to introduce more empathetic beliefs, values, and social norms in the hope of achieving more empathetic behavior have failed. In the short-term cases he mentions, he's correct.

However, if his implication of the failure of cultural renovation is meant as a statement about human nature and history, or an indictment of human agency and culture for failing to be determinative, re-/innovative evolutionary forces, then we need to reconsider our entire understanding of the past 200,000+ years of human cultural evolution. That the emergence of symbolic language was an act of brain physiology not a socio-cultural innovation. That the invention and spread of complex tool use was driven by the workings of brain meat not innovation and cultural diffusion. That agriculture, urban living, laws, treaties, International protocols and conventions, and the liberating and humanizing principles of civilizations, including those of the Enlightenment, arose from the brain and not from the efforts of embodied yet socially defined and culturally motivated selves. That the matter of "just" wars against fascism, movements for racial liberation and human rights, for example, leading to psycho-socio-cultural transformations and the opening of new pathways toward the betterment of Humankind are, at their root, brain activity. 

"I get that these are complicated problems,” he told me. “I get that there isn’t going to be any one magic solution. But if you trace even the biggest of these conflicts down to its roots, what you find are entrenched biases, and these sort-of calcified failures of empathy. So I think no matter what, we have to figure out how to root that out.”

Ah, yes, tracing human behavior "down to its roots." Identifying "Entrenched biases" and "failures of empathy" and figuring out "how to root them out."

I think a better argument can be made for investigating the psychological make-up, the child rearing experienced, and the social and cultural transformations persistently worked for by persons who have had the greatest impact on Humankind - Spinoza, Lincoln, Twain, Churchill, the Roosevelts, Nyerere, King, Mandela, and many, many other men and women. It is in their embodied socially active selves, their deep inner personal commitments to humanity and humaneness, and the actions they took that we can expect to find the roots of empathy, and the means of understanding and addressing the conditions under which it flourishes and fails.

By all means, study the brain and reveal its relationship to the higher, more complex levels of being human. It is, I believe, from studying this relationship that further and better knowledge will be developed about complex human behaviors - from the mind-body problem to or place in the universe - not in reducing complex human thought and behavior to the properties and processes of bodily matter.



Understanding culture and the beliefs and values of specific cultures from a strictly Darwinian selection point of view is not a new approach.

The most recent attempt was by Richard Dawkins in his The Selfish Gene in which he coined the term "meme" as the basic unit of cultural evolutionary selection and set in motion the study (I hesitate to call it a discipline or sub-discipline) of memetics. British psychologist Susan Blackmore ( is for Dawkins what Thomas Huxley became for Darwin.

I didn't jump on the memetic bandwagon at first because, well, it was a bandwagon. But mainly I didn't and still don't like the approach because it smacks of the old, unsubstantiated Kroeberian and Whiteian take on culture as having a superorganic existence and processes of its own, independent of its symbiotic hosts, the minds of individuals.

Scott-Phillips of
Durham University, is an anthropologist.



Here’s a good essay on the return of realism and the end of postmodernism and its attack on the natural and social sciences. How so many bought into the PM notion that reality is nothing more that our linguistic formulations is beyond me. Yes, we use mind-imbedded language to engage the natural and social worlds but that does not justify the PM conclusion that that engagement is the only reality.