I’m going philosophical in this post, so those of a disposition sensitive to pointless armchair theorising look away now.
I’ve long been interested in Philosophy, but particularly interested in the brain, the most complex thing in the known universe, as far as I’m aware.
In this post I want to explain why I think the mind is the brain and that love is indeed ‘just a bunch of neurons’. To do this I need you to imagine that you have a PC, and that its hard disk drive has stopped working.
So, now you’re sat at a desk boiling with frustration, thinking “Why isn’t my PC working?”
There are a number of explanations, you think, but there are more you’re probably not considering. Imagine that there is some kind of ‘ladder of explanations’ from the subatomic, through the ‘physical’ to the personal and social. It’s a kind of ‘system hierarchy’.
At each point in this hierarchy you would explain the problem in quite different ways.
The physicist could look at the flows of electrons and so forth (apologies to the physicists) between the PC system’s components in its working and non-working states. You could see that the patterns/flows were different and the difference represents the ‘fault’. Presumably if you could actually map the history of such a massive amount of ‘flow of electrons’ you could trace the cause.
The PC repair man will look at the same PC and tell you that there are bad sectors on your hard drive and it can be repaired but you should back up and replace it.
Your partner will tell you that it’s broken because you insist on buying cheap components for your self-built PCs and it was bound to bite you in the ass at some point.
A sociologist would tell you that the built-in obsolescence, borne of an attitude to technology that is symptomatic of our crazy ‘growth-obsessed’ society that values consumption and the attendant profit at almost all costs, was the reason your hard drive failed.
Now, the answer that’s the most use to you is most likely the PC repair man’s answer. His explanation has utility in the context that is your concern. If you are not a sociologist or a physicist, but someone that wants to use a PC, then the explanation you want of the problem is the PC repair man’s.
Of course it’s not the only answer, or explanation. The other explanations are more or less valid but of very little use.
Each explanation for the hard drive’s failure, in the above hierarchy, is couched in a particular vocabulary, or ‘language game’*. These language games are specialised to their level of the hierarchy (physical to supra-social) to ensure the greatest utility in communication for whatever it is that we want an explanation or understanding of, at that level.
If we want to understand why electronic components fail more often than they should we would find more utility in the sociologist’s ‘answer’ than the PC repair man’s answers for each of the component failures. If you like, we would play the sociologist’s language game in order to get the sort of explanation we’re after.
Which brings me to love.
The main problem for mind-brain identity theorists like me (those who think the mind just is the brain but from a first person perspective), and reductionists in general, has been the problem of consciousness. How is that soggy broccoli-like lump in your head the cause of or identical with the rarefied and exquisite finesse of conscious experience? How can love simply be the firing of, or self-organising manifestations of states in, layers of inter-related neural networks?
Adopting the ladder, or hierarchy principle, we make one sacrifice in order to arrive at an explanation that in my mind dissolves the problem.
That sacrifice is an acceptance that there is no single or best referent for ‘love’, ‘brains’, ‘minds’ and even ‘hard disks’. Instead, we say that if you want to know what love is, then it depends on who’s asking the question. The neural networks that show response to stimuli associated with the objects or memories of love, however dimly understood, are the referent most useful in identifying the physical manifestation that accompanies the experience of love. But stop there! It doesn’t actually accompany the experience, the experience just is the neural networks, but is merely a different reference for that thing which is referenced also by the neurological description.
They reference the same experiential entity, but they do so for different purposes.
It follows then that the term ‘love’ is not the referent, it’s merely a referent for the experiential object that has most utility in ensuring effective communication at a personal through to the social levels of this imaginary ladder on matters of, well, love :) Having to repeatedly replace the referent ‘love’ with a complicated description of the inter-relationship of neural networks is just, well, a bit rubbish. It also wouldn’t fit, as the whole language game within which ‘love’ takes place, the talk of emotions, memories, relationships, feelings like jealousy, insecurity and so on, has a high utility for managing our relationships with each other. The ‘neural networks’ language game has a low utility for this, but a high utility for helping us understand aspects of brain function concurrent with first person reports of love.
Having a single language game for everything is ridiculous if not impossible, but that doesn’t mean that the objects we refer to in these games aren’t in fact a single object, as I outline below.
So, with my broken PC, I gave, in the language I’m using now, a misleadingly ‘basic’ reference of ‘hard disk’. The explanations seemed to reference why the ‘hard disk’ was broken, but of course, my point of view implies that an object has had a state change of some sort and the language game you play in order to describe it to others depends on what you’re after. (I get that because I’m talking about a hard disk drive, it’s the kind of thing for which that term has a lot of utility all the way through the hierarchy, not to mention this blog post.)
So, going back to love and brains, the mistake we might be making, constructing even, is to assume that these quite different referents reference different things. It seems, to our perception, that there are different things.
Getting over the idea that there must be, metaphysically, different things isn’t something I can prove logically one ought to do. But if you consider my view as a starting point it feels to me like certain problems disappear. The further question then regards starting points. Why would we start at this point and not the traditional Cartesian dualist’s point?
The assumption they have is that our initial, dare I say, ‘pre-cognitive’ awareness of brains and love are different and so we must start there and rationalise our way to either dualism or the reductionism that countered it, whether that was idealism or physicalism.
I have yet to see a good reason why we start there, particularly when it’s the starting point itself that is the subject of scrutiny, not the given upon which scrutiny is then undertaken.
All of which only goes to say, if you feel like you’re in love, enjoy it, it’s real :)
Right, that’s got that off my chest, I’ll return to realms I’m more comfortable in next time, but if anyone out there has a question, throw it my way, I love learning.
*For an explanation of what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein actually meant by the term ‘language game’ click here.