It wasn’t God that created the human ‘I’

The gap between neural activity and mental experience – a sense of self – is bridged by years of human interaction.

Stuart Derbyshire

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Topics Politics

Over the next two weeks, spiked will be publishing a series of articles based on talks given at the Battle of Ideas festival, which took place on 30 and 31 October at the Royal College of Art in London. Here, Stuart Derbyshire explains that the question of what makes life meaningful cannot be reduced to God or the brain. Instead, feeling, experience and knowledge emerge from a developmental process that is both physical (biological) and social (mental).

What does ‘sacred’ mean? According to my dictionary, it is:

– ‘connected with God or a god or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration’;

– ‘regarded with great respect and reverence by a particular religion, group, or individual’;

– ‘regarded as too valuable to be interfered with; sacrosanct’.

Sacred is also an action role-playing game for Microsoft Windows, the Los Lonely Boys’ fourth album and their second studio set and a Cubesat built by the Student Satellite Program of the University of Arizona…

Sticking with the dictionary definition, it would seem that ‘sacred’ refers, at least, to value and thus we are addressing the question of what makes life, at least, valuable. Most of us have an intuition that it is better to live than not to live, even though we would not know if we were not living, which means we think it better to ‘know’.

Knowing that I am something has value for me and I assume it has value for you as well.

What this also means is that what we value about life is not our flesh and blood. We need the flesh and blood to live, but life is more than that. This was the point put forward by Descartes almost 500 years ago. Descartes separated human beings into the mechanics of their bodies and their rational soul.

The mechanics of the body might explain certain facts about how bodies behave, but human beings are more than mechanics. What you appreciate about your friends and family is probably their creativity and personality, not the terrific way in which their heart pumps blood and their neurons fire. It is the non-machine-like qualities of our friends and family that we admire and relate to.

The problem with Descartes is that he never adequately explained how the mechanics relate to the thinking, feeling beings that we clearly are. How is activity in the body’s nervous system translated into the mind’s experience of colour, sound, smell, taste, and so on? Descartes’ answer to this question is notoriously obscure. He suggests that it is by divine arrangement that the translation takes place. God did it.

I recognise that there is a religious element to the word ‘sacred’ but I am going to state baldly that I think ‘God did it’ is a rubbish answer. I think we need a better one.

One answer to the conundrum of how we get from flesh and blood to experience is to state that we just do. This is the kind of answer that Daniel Dennett and many others have reached in their writings. Activity within sufficiently complex, or appropriate, nervous tissue, it is argued, will immediately deliver the distinctive qualities of experience, such as the redness of red, the coldness of cold, the painness of pain and so forth.

Thus what makes life valuable, if not ‘sacred’, might be found in flesh and blood after all. I think I am speaking on this panel because I have, since about 1994, been pestered by the question of whether a fetus can feel pain. A seemingly obvious way to answer that question is to ask what biological systems are necessary for pain and when they appear in development.

A quick answer is that we need receptors in the skin to detect threats to tissue and those receptors need to be connected to parts of the brain that can interpret the threat. The receptors, the connections and the relevant parts of the brain are all developed by about 24 weeks gestational age. Thus the fetus can feel pain after 24 weeks but not before. You can perform this same trick with respect to other sensations such as vision, hearing, taste and so forth.

I recognise that neural pathways and the brain play an important role in sensory experience. Heads full of sawdust don’t feel anything. I understand that there is an intimate relationship between your feeling of pain and the receptors that respond to threats to tissue and the pathways from those receptors to your brain. That is certainly undeniable.

But I am going to state baldly that I think answering the question of what makes life sacred with ‘the brain does it’ is only slightly less rubbish than answering it with ‘God does it’.

Ray Tallis has argued, far more eloquently than I, that the brain is massively overrated. I’m frankly sick of the brain, always hanging around, vying for attention and pretending it can solve all our problems.

My retort to the idea that the brain does it can be stated simply – whatever it is that nervous tissue does I am quite certain that it does not feel because cells cannot feel. Only persons can feel. Interpretations of consciousness that start and finish in the brain consistently run up against the hard problem that conscious events are not reducible to neural activity. Conscious experience simply doesn’t feel like the firing of neurons and cannot be reduced to neural activity, computational or functional sequences or, as the (somewhat awkward) philosopher Ted Honderich has explained, we cannot reduce our conscious experience to a ‘macroscopic quantum coherence, with Bose Einstein condensates combining and microtubules microtubuling’.

Asserting that activity in nervous tissue generates consciousness fails, because there is nothing within neuronal activity that can explain consciousness. Neuroscience cannot provide any principled basis for distinguishing one conscious state from another and has, for example, declared emotional and physical pain to be the same because both activate the same part of the brain. That’s an amazing conceit – emotional pain feels very different from physical pain and if neuroscience cannot tell the difference then there is something wrong with neuroscience. Believing that consciousness somehow falls out of mechanical processes automatically has also led neuroscientists to declare individual brain parts, individual cells, robots, computers, thermostats and even rocks as having some form of ‘conscious’ existence.

But if it is not the brain that turns physics into experience and if it is not God then what is it? I’m not sure… But I am sure we need ‘something more’ than physics – there must be something that allows the activity in nervous tissue to deliver feeling. And the nature of that something must be beyond physical-physical interactions because physical-physical interactions can only produce more physics.

Thus I am drawn towards the idea that the something must involve activity between the physical and the mental. This is an idea that I think can work, at least a bit, and essentially reduces to stating that feeling, experience and knowledge arise as consequences of a developmental process that is both physical (biological) and social (mental).

Following birth, the infant is in the immediate presence of conscious caregivers who will now control and constrain the infant’s behaviour. At first the infant lives according to her own innate organisation but gradually new forms of organisation, such as the circadian rhythms of night and day and the patterns of feeding and motion imposed by her caregivers, start to take hold. Crying, then food, darkness and sleep. These rhythms and patterns are the first source of information for the infant and connect the outside world and the activities of caregivers with her own spontaneous behaviour.

Normal eye gaze, for example, that might be mere gawping, can be directed and organised during play. The adult playmaker controls gaze and constructs visual attention by highlighting the structurally relevant features. The infant’s natural ability to alight upon certain features of the world, such as eye gaze, facial features, contrast, meaningful actions and so forth is regulated and highlighted by the caregiver and presented back to the infant. The infant shares in the point of view of the playmaker.

The shared point of view and the separation and framing of individual elements provides a structure for the infant. Gradually, as the infant develops new physical capacities facilitating mental functions, especially memory, that structure is internalised and directs the infant’s own behaviour. By grasping for a toy, for example, the infant signals intent to a caregiver that may not be explicit for the infant. Gazing towards the toy in anticipation of its return also signals intent and awareness of action. The isolation of the toy in memory enables the infant to hold on to the toy and to isolate it in her relationship to the caregiver, and consequently in her relation to the initial behaviour and the subsequent caregiver response.

The beginning of explicit intent is there in the act that now picks out specific stimuli and organises the various responses into a form of action. Initially, it is the stimulus and caregiver that controls the infant’s action through interaction and reward. The intent is explicit for the caregiver but also implicit in the scenario. As the infant increasingly absorbs the rules of the game she is able to shift her focus from the toy to the caregiver and to herself thus stepping between different points of view within the act. The infant begins to emerge to herself as she absorbs the implicit intent of the action and adopts the viewpoint of each external element.

The outline of an ‘I’ (or a self) develops. It is this ‘I’ who experiences.

Sights, sounds, smells, touch are endlessly fading in and out of experience but we do not experience this as strange or fragmented because these experiences are gathered up into a faculty of ‘I’ that exercises judgement and allows us to be located, rather than submerged, within those stimuli. The late-term fetus and newborn infant may have some equivalent neuronal activity associated with visual, auditory and tactile stimulation, but without a faculty of ‘I’ they have no means by which a singular experience can be isolated and experienced.

Experience requires a conceptual apparatus to keep the relevant sensory activity highlighted and the irrelevant ones suppressed, because consciousness cannot experience everything at once. That conceptual apparatus is delivered through development.

So what makes knowledge possible and what, thus, makes life sacred? It is not God or our brain but it is I that does it.

Stuart Derbyshire is senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham, and a member of the Working Party that produced the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologist’s recent reports on fetal awareness. Derbyshire was speaking in the session ‘What makes life sacred?’, organised by BPAS at the Battle of Ideas, 30 October 2010.

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