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Michael Graziano is a Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton. Ernest Dempsey asks him about the mind and the brain.
Hello Michael. Your book God Soul Mind Brain is short and yet substantial, inviting so many questions. To start with, you say that only neuroscience has seriously challenged the dualistic view of the universe. Why say this?
It’s a pleasure to chat. Philosophy has gone back and forth and around in circles on the question of the mind, with little or no progress. There is a recent trend for philosophy to borrow from neuroscience – to restate neuroscience in layman’s terms – and to call it a new philosophy. But to me it’s just neuroscience.
There are basically two positions on the mind/body problem: first, the view of a ‘spirit world’, in which the mind is a non-physical entity that can float free of the body; second, the view of neuroscience, in which the mind emerges from the functioning of the brain. The only objective evidence is for this second approach.
We learn from your book that what we call ‘reality’ is always subjective and no more than a bundle of perceptions. Is your position on reality in line with the empiricist tradition?
My point is not at all that reality is a subjective construct of the brain. There is a reality. It is out there. But our perception of reality is like a story that the brain tells itself, and that story may be quite inaccurate. I think the classical empiricists failed to understand how much our minds reconstruct reality for us. It has taken modern neuroscience to fully appreciate the distinction between the reality out there, the thing that is being perceived, and our perception of it, which is constructed in the brain. A good example is color. In reality, white light is a mixture of all other colors, but we do not perceive it that way. The brain constructs its own version of reality, in which white light is fundamentally different from, and purer than, other colors. That is not to say that we can intentionally make our brains construct any perception we want. We can’t remake our perceptual world at will. Perception is constrained both by what is really out there and by unconscious mechanisms in the brain that function to construct our perception in a certain way, whether we want them to or not.
We have different centers in the brain for controlling specific perceptual, cognitive and motor functions. Is there a central command within the brain that coordinates them?
Whether there is a central command module in the brain is controversial. Some regions, such as the prefrontal cortex, may partly fill that role. But many of the general control functions, like making a decision to do A instead of B, are probably the result of dynamic, constantly changing interactions among many brain areas.
One important point I get from your book is that consciousness is a process not a thing.
This may be only a semantic distinction. When you run a race, is running a process or a thing? It isn’t a physical object. It’s something you do. Just so, consciousness seems to be something we do, a verb, a process of computing information in certain ways in the brain.
With perception enjoying primacy over cognition in the nervous system, as we learn from your book, do we need to put the long-held belief in cognitive therapy to question?
In therapy, the golden rule is, if it works, use it. It’s all results-based. So I wouldn’t want to dump a therapy method on the basis of a theory. I am not sure that perception trumps cognition. There is a fuzzy border between them. My book certainly focuses on social perception, and less on social cognition.
At about the end of the book, we read about Richard Dawkins’ theory that the religious meme propels itself through the human race like an evolving organism does through nature. But then you say that people, not religions, are responsible for brutality or decency. Aren’t these positions incompatible?
I certainly subscribe to both of those positions, and don’t think they are incompatible. Yes, I think religion is culturally grown, and propagates, and evolves in a way that tends to protect itself, because religions that didn’t do that wouldn’t survive. I also think that, objectively, there is not a whole lot of evidence that religion causes either brutality or peacefulness. One can find the same vast range from brutality to peacefulness whether you look at religious people or atheists. There are some religions that are used in the service of war: but religions tend to be used in the service of whatever people are doing at the moment – a bit like music.
You see morality as a construct of the brain, and coming through imitation. What is the primary force constituting belief systems?
I believe morality evolves. It is partly influenced by genetically determined organization in the brain, and partly the result of cultural evolution. It definitely changes over time and across cultures, and yet some of it is relatively constant. Some elements of morality, apparently, can even be found in the way chimpanzees interact with each other.
With advanced machines mediating between us and others, where is our evolution going?
If it’s possible to construct a computer that plays chess, and now a computer that plays Jeopardy, I think a computer that is conscious and moral in the same sense as humans is not too far away. Whether that is good or bad, and what impact it will have on us culturally, I have no clear idea.
• Ernest Dempsey is the editor of the quarterly Recovering the Self. He runs a popular blog called ‘Word Matters!’ at ernestdempsey.com.