I am holding in my hands the October 2012 issue of Scientific American. The cover features a giant synaptic gap between two neurons next to the following blockbuster headline: “The Language of the Brain: how the world’s most complicated machine processes and communicates information.”
I am annoyed. I am bracing for what I consider to be a dose of scientific reductionism. But I flip through to page 54 to read the following opener to the article:
“The brain makes sense of our experiences by focusing closely on the timing of the impulses that flow through billions of nerve cells,” say the two neuroscientists who authored the article, Terry Sejnowski and Tobi Delbruck.
Take a moment and re-read the sentence above. Something feels fishy here doesn’t it? In case you haven’t noticed, the sentence above is a complete tautology, a statement of circular reasoning. Let me explain. The brain is billions of nerve cells. So, let’s see how this sentence reads when we substitute the word brain with its definition.
“Billions of nerve cells make sense of our experiences by focusing closely on the timing of the impulses that flow through billions of nerve cells.”
But let’s make yet another semantic edit here to crystallize this blind spot of modern neuroscience that I am trying to highlight here.
When Sejnowski and Delbruck say “The brain makes sense of our experiences” they are referring not to some collective “our” experience but, of course, to the very experience of the brain that they are talking about. So, the more precise phrasing that emerges from the original statement is this:
“Billions of nerve cells make sense of their own experience by focusing closely on the timing of their impulses that flow through them.”
That’s right! This is what neuroscience – as proposed by these two neuroscience spokespeople – actually seems to be saying…
1. Is modern neuroscience saying that a nerve cell (a neuron) or a group of neurons “makes sense” of other neurons’ firing timing and in so doing has an experience?
2. Is modern neuroscience saying that a nerve cell or a group of nerve cells “makes sense” of their own firing timing?
3. Is modern neuroscience saying that nerve cells are conscious?
4. Is modern neuroscience equating “information processing” with experience and consciousness? If so, how should I feel about my information-processing laptop?
5. How does neuroscience define “information”? Related: is neuroscience equating us with information? If so, who’s witnessing this information? Or is this another twist on the circular reasoning – the information is witnessing itself?
6. Does neuroscience equate patterns of swapping of neurotransmitter molecules (which are just little chemical billiard balls) from a synapse to a synapse with experience and, therefore, with us (since according to this reductionistic view we – the nerve cells – are nothing but experience, which, in turn is nothing but chemistry)? Put differently, is the neuroscience saying that we are conscious chemistry? That we are walking, talking, loving, fearing chemical equations? If so, should the chemistry that I am feel for the chemistry of the neurotransmitter in a pill of Prozac?
7. Or does neuroscience equate electrical discharges and electrical impulses in between neurons with information and, thus, experience, and, thus, consciousness? If so, is modern neuroscience telling us that you and I are cellular chemico-electrical grids and that… we are what electricity feels like? Is neuroscience telling us that we are conscious electricity? If so, should the electricity that I am feel for the electricity inside the toaster on my kitchen countertop?
8. Are you the neuron (or the group of neurons) that is processing this information right now or are you some other neuron (or some other group of neurons) that is processing (“experiencing”) this moment of information-processing? If so, nice to meet you, Self-Referencing Neuron(s)!
9. Are you
b) information that passes between neurons?
c) information processing itself?
d) information processing of information processing?
e) all of the above?
f) none of the above?
g) e) & f)?
I can go on and on asking these questions but it’s in vain. Official neuroscience is not really interested in explaining any of this circular reasoning nonsense. Don’t get me wrong: it’s good at what it does in a technical sense. It can peer into the “brain” and show us the amazing chemico-electrical neon lights of the neural nightlife. It can map the highways of information flow like the local TV station with its traffic updates. Modern Neuroscience is like a gadget-savvy infant Godzilla of Dogma that stomps around an ancient philosophico-existential playground insisting on its reductionistically-naive definitions of what we are.
A more fitting illustration cover for the Scientific American might be not a synaptic gap but a gap in the reasoning of modern day neuroscience: it’s busy producing fool’s answers to fool’s questions (and I mean this lovingly being myself a fool that asks the unanswerable questions way too often). (A graphic I recommend for such an issue would be picture # 8 of the Ox Herding series: a full moon, an empty circle.)
It’s time the field of neuroscience uses its own “brains” to make sense of its own reductionistic nonsense.
There is, of course, another possibility: perhaps, unofficially, the modern neuroscience does think that we are nothing more than Conscious Matter (i.e. Spiritual/Feeling/Thinking/Sensing/Living Matter a la Vernadsky’s “living matter”), a holistic conclusion that I myself hold. But if so, let us for once hear this inconvenient truth.
When I say “dark age of neuroscience” I don’t mean that things are getting bad or worse in neuroscience. Not at all. Things are getting better and better, lighter and lighter, in neuroscience. But as a field, in my opinion, neuroscience is still like that ox-herding boy in the Ten Bulls series… it’s still chasing its own reductionistic tail… it’s still in the “dark age” of reductionistic mind-body duality.
Ten Bulls or Ten Ox Herding Pictures is, in the tradition of Zen Buddhism, a series of short poems and accompanying pictures that are intended to illustrate the stages of a Mahāyāna Buddhist practitioner’s progression towards enlightenment, as well as his or her subsequent perfection of wisdom. (source: wiki)
Related: Brain to Brain Interface