February 25, 2024

Mind-brain debate still open question

New book offers fresh hypothesis

From reading journals like New Scientist and Scientific American, or even Science and Nature, you might think that scientists have solved the problem of human consciousness. Nobel laureate Francis Crick summed it up in his 1995 book The Astonishing Hypothesis: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules”. Or in the succinct words of Harvard’s celebrity psychologist Steven Pinker, “the mind is what the brain does”.

This deeply entrenched position is unlikely to change soon, but a recent highly-praised book suggests that Crick, Pinker & Co. have vastly overstated their case. In his book Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness, Alva Noë, of the University of California, Berkeley, says that “the subject of experience is not a bit of your body. You are not your brain. The brain, rather, is part of what you are.”

Far from being novel, this notion has a rather old-fashioned ring to it. However the astonishing thing is how well it has been received by writers and philosophers: “astounding and convincing”, says Oliver Sacks, the best-selling science writer. “Those of us who disagree with some of its main conclusions have our work cut out for us,” says Daniel Dennett, a leading philosopher of evolution. And “while his views are sure to be controversial, most of what he says is true, and all of it is original and important to think about,” according to Harvard’s Hilary Putnam. So it appears that it’s still too soon to declare the mind-brain debate completely settled.

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Steven Pinker