Do We Think WIth Our Brain?

Karlsson Mikael
Language of the article : English
DOI: 10.3406/intel.2010.1179
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In this paper, the first version of which was written in 1995, for presentation to psychologists, the author considers what we can infer from the observations that have been made possible by dynamic neuroimaging in response to the questions, “Do we think with our brains?”, “Does thinking occur in the brain?” and “Is thought nothing more than brain activity?” By “thinking”, the author means not only what we commonly mean by thinking, that is, cogitating on one subject or another, but also—and even in particular—perceiving, recalling, problem-solving and having emotional attitudes: “psychic activities” as he calls them. The author first reflects upon what might be meant by “thinking with the brain”. Perhaps what is often meant is that we use our brains when we think. The author does not dispute this obvious fact, but points out that we use our brains when we eat or run, and yet we do not say that we eat or run with our brains. The author suggests that what might more properly be meant is that the brain is the organ of thought, or psychic activity, and analyzes the organ of an activity as the proximate agent cause of that activity: when the organ does its job, the activity in question is the immediate result. The author then proceeds to argue that on this account, the brain cannot be said to be the organ of “cognitively robust” psychic activities, such as perceiving or recollecting. The author’s main argument for this is that if such activities are recognized as cognitively robust, they are understood to consist in causal interactions between the subject and cognizable features of her environment. The brain may be an active participant in such an interaction, but no activity of the brain itself can constitute such an interaction. Thus what we can observe going on within the brain through brainoscopy is not robust psychic activity. There remains the possibility that the brain is the organ of certain less robust psychic activities, such as having subjective experiences of the kind that the author labels “apparitions”. In response to the question whether thinking goes on the brain, the author argues, first, that the robust psychic activities, being causal interactions between the environment and the subject—no doubt including her brain—it is not possible that these go on within the brain. But the author takes a further step in trying to show the difficulties in maintaining that these activities have any discrete location at all. In support, and perhaps in explanation, of this idea, the author notes that transactions are evidently analyzable as processes, in the sense defined by Fred Dretske: the causation of one event by another. We may be convinced that events have discrete locations in time and space; but this does not entail that processes do, and the author argues that they do not (although we may attribute “nebulous” location to them), and that there is no reason to suppose that they should. Unlike events, processes are not straightforwardly observable. Rather, they are relations inferred from, or attributed to, events. Thus, they are not revealed by brainoscopy, and moreover attempting to locate them discretely is misguided. We may ask various interesting questions about location with respect to processes, but the question of just where they are is not one of them. The author reasons further, from these conclusions, that there is no hope of thinking of robust psychic processes as nothing more than brain activity. Once their nature is well construed, their non-locality, non-observability and non-reducibility to brain activity generates no mystery and presents no challenge to physicalism. The author concedes that “apparitional” activities may be more like events than like processes, and may thus be observable and locatable—perhaps in the brain. But he believes that the obsessive need to locate them is based upon the mistaken idea that anything not so locatable is anathema to physicalism. That, he thinks, proves not to be the case for the more robust psychic activities, but that does not stand in the way of accommodating them within the descriptive and explanatory frameworks that we construct in our efforts to understand the world.

Pour citer cet article :

Karlsson Mikael (2010/1-2). Do We Think WIth Our Brain? In Steiner Pierre & Stewart John (Eds), Philosophy, Technology and Cognition, Intellectica, 53-54, (pp.67-94), DOI: 10.3406/intel.2010.1179.