Sunday, 28 September 2014

I Am Not My Brain (But I Am)

I could waffle for Oxford because I'm a philosopher.  What I am is a philosopher.  Does that mean my brain is a philosopher?  The statement "This brain is a philosopher" sounds odd.  Nonetheless there are many philosophers who have claimed to be their brains, and taking their claim about the mind-brain identity theory seriously, and as a form of self-determination, presumably we have a duty to refer to any one of their brains, when preserved in a jar, as for instance "Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher".  If Jeremy Bentham had made that claim, this is not Jeremy Bentham:

Not Jeremy Bentham

I don't know if anyone tried to preserve his brain, but I doubt it.

The idea that someone is their brain is known as the "Mind-Brain Identity Theory".  I argued against it in this video:

The question arises of course of whether that was really me.  Nonetheless, I stand by it to some extent and the sense in which that wasn't me is more to do with adopting a persona.  This was the actor currently known as Amanda McIntyre-Ure playing the part of a man, so this person is definitely not her brain.

However, however, however, this is interesting from a different point of view because there is a sense in which we are our brains.  It doesn't make sense to draw a blood-brain barrier-style barrier around the brain and say that this is me, but there are some ways in which I really am my brain.  Before I get to that, though, there are some really obvious ways in which I'm not my brain.  If I were my brain, I would weigh about 1200 grammes.  Observe (and borrow a "however" from the stash at the start of the paragraph):


From this picture, it's possible to deduce a number of things.  One is that I can't use my camera properly, another is that I need to re-do my toenails, but the third thing is more relevant:  I weigh 72 kg (or strictly speaking I have a mass of 72 kg but I won't quibble).  Therefore I am not my brain, because my brain's mass is probably about 1200 grammes.  That would clearly be silly, although it might help someone with an eating disorder.  It could also be a vagary of usage which it would be useful to overcome, but I dislike the kind of world that suggests as in spite of everything I think it's important to be at one with one's body.

Feel free to borrow another "however".  I am my brain in some senses.  A forgetful brain implies a forgetful person.  There are no people with forgetful brains who are not themselves forgetful people.  An epileptic brain implies an epileptic person, and again, there are no people with epileptic brains who are not epileptic.  On a healthier note, a brain whose fine motor functions are concentrated in the left hemisphere entails a right-handed person and vice versa.  In fact, even a one-armed person whose brain is specialised in that way is left- or right-handed regardless of which arm they have. That doesn't depend on the shape of their body or what organs they have.

Clearly there are aspects of someone's identity which can also be said to be aspects of their brain.  There are equally aspects of it which can't be.  Some of these are very easy to work out.  A brain is never five foot eleven inches tall but a person can be.  A brain might "weigh" 1200 grammes but a person is not likely to be that weight for very long if they have been born.  On the other hand, a schizophrenic brain must belong to a schizophrenic person and a depressive brain must belong to a depressive person.  Oddly though, the reverse is not necessarily true.  Historically, the concepts of schizophrenia and depression are fairly new, so a few centuries ago these people wouldn't have been schizophrenic or depressed but something else, so there's a cultural context to all this as usual.

You know what I want to say but I've said it enough and I won't say it again here.  Left-handed brains must be in left-handed people's heads.  Forgetful brains must be in forgetful people's heads.  There's no way either of those can be false, although there could be people who feign forgetfulness or the wrong handedness.  There would, however, be a taint of dishonesty, right here, right now, in pretending to be left-handed when one wasn't or pretending to be forgetful when one wasn't, even if it eventually became second nature.  That would be true even if you only had one hand, although it would also be understandable, just as it might be understandable if this had happened a few decades ago.  I had a headmaster who was caned for drawing a picture of a man using a saw with his left hand, and presumably in those circumstances many people would have tried to do things right-handedly or even pretended to be right-handed, and it made perfect sense for them to do so.  The chances are, though, that they would have been quite clumsy and had, for instance, untidy handwriting or found it hard to thread needles.

What if you grew up in a world where left-handed people were said not to exist at all?

I'm just going to leave that hanging.  It does have wider applications of course.

So there is a sense in which I am my brain and another sense in which I'm not.  I don't know what distinguishes the two.