Damasio, Spinoza and our Current Confusion about Cause and Effect, by Charles M. Saunders

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

In this article, Charles M. Saunders considers Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, N.Y., 2003)

In 2003, one of our most capable and respected neuroscientists went searching for Spinoza. What Antonio Damasio found is both enlightening and alarming. It is laudable that an empirical scientist had the interest, care, and capability to analyze the sequencing and behaviors associated with what Spinoza terms ‘the Emotions.’ This is clearly a positive development. When our neuroscientist friend recognized that something about emotional response is measurable, he made strides for the entire scientific community. But by focusing his analysis only on chapters 3 and 4 of “The Ethics”, Damasio sidetracks Spinoza’s metaphysics, chapters 1 and 2 while presenting Spinoza as some sort of intuitive materialist. The alarming part in all of this is that chapters 3 and 4 are linked inexorably to 1 and 2 wherein Spinoza insists that our thoughts are as real as our experience. As notable as Damasio’s respect for Spinoza’s psychology may be there is a tremendous distance from his awakening to the import and physical reality of the emotions to an adequate understanding of the full impact of Spinoza’s discovery, that the human mind has the ability to form replications of objects so accurate that these ideas are essentially the same thing as the objects they represent.

This is an astounding claim that Spinoza makes and to this day, it has been overlooked or dismissed in light of the advances in contemporary science and its ability to “reduce” everything in its purview through observation and measurement. But cause and effect are not observable within the same time and space.

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine...' by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

When the neuroscientist-researcher connects electrodes to a patient to monitor brainwaves there is no question that the observable patterns that emerge are exciting and are indicators of some brain activity related to behaviors that correspond to the patient’s emotional state and mood changes But to conclude from this that the patterns and their location in the brain somehow indicates the cause of the thinking process is a leap that indicates faulty reasoning and bad science. To draw a conclusion about the source of the thinking process from an electroencephalogram is akin to a person who while standing atop the tallest building in a large city before dawn observes the pattern of traffic lights below and concludes that the pattern of lights is the cause of the flow of traffic. No matter how many thousands of lights make up the discernable pattern of the flow of traffic, the actual cause of the traffic is not observable. The cause of the traffic resides elsewhere. It originates in the reasons that each individual driver leaves home and enters the flow: going to work, driving a friend to the hospital, making deliveries, police responding to emergencies and countless other actions are the actual cause of the traffic and they are entirely disconnected from one another. There is no common cause to be observed and reported on here.
This analogy demonstrates the confusion inherent in the empirical process. There is no argument about what the scientist sees during the study. But there is a strong argument against what he claims to have observed. If this mistaken insistence that causality must be observable resided solely in speculative neurobiology the harm might not be that negligible. Unfortunately for us, this curious misunderstanding of cause and effect permeates most of our scientific theory and practice, including applications in healthcare diagnosis and treatment.

Perhaps one of the most debilitating misapplications of the empirical process lies within the field of genetics and the supposed causal link observable in DNA. Crick and Watson never assigned any causal agency to their brilliant discovery. They clearly understood DNA for what it is; a marker not a cause. Assigning cause to DNA strands came later after arrogance and the same faulty reasoning process employed by Damasio came into play. Whether a person suffers from cancer or obesity or a predilection towards baldness, DNA is not the cause of the affliction it merely marks the presence of the condition. To carry the traffic lights/scientific research analogy a bit further, just as we can clearly understand that no matter how complicated or advanced the light pattern and system flow technology might be it cannot be said to be the cause of the traffic. That flow can only be understood by seeing the individual actions and behaviors that are the actual cause. So with DNA, it is a marker that notes the presence not the cause of disease.

The upshot of all this is that our current empirical/materialist science system that has brought about some of the most significant advances for humans in medicine and other sophisticated technologies contains a seriously flawed view of cause and effect. But by insisting on a research focus only on the world of external experience it ignores the rich world of experience’s counterpart and co-equivalent, the Human Mind. This now outmoded way of explaining our planet and our relationship to it must give way to a more sophisticated view. This view will credit the mind as the source and wellspring of any scientific achievement that we’ve ever accomplished and that it is the mind which provides us with the most magnificent tool at our disposal for unraveling Nature’s mysteries.

Charles M. Saunders

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Happy Birthday, Santiago Ramón y Cajal!

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, estudiante de medicina en Zaragoza 1876: self portrait, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I discovered the fascinating scientist and thinker Santiago Ramón y Cajal (May 1, 1852 – Oct. 17, 1934) not long ago among the always excellent writings of Maria Popova:

Diseases of the Will: Neuroscience Founding Father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the Six Psychological Flaws That Keep the Talented from Achieving Greatness – by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

I don’t think I could improve upon her excellent article at all, so I recommend that to you first. Her article summarizes Cajal’s observations about the ways in which we can so easily defeat ourselves in the pursuit of excellence. I, for one, find that his observations and advice offer very wise guidance, a series of signposts marking pitfalls that can entrap our egos all too easily. Cajal clearly lived by his own advice, and his achievements were marked by hard work and dogged perseverance as well as brilliant insight.

Learn more about Cajal’s life and scientific achievements:

Life and Discoveries of Santiago Ramón y Cajal – by Marina Bentivoglio for Nobelprize.org

Santiago Ramón y Cajal – by Abdellatif Nemri for Scholarpedia

Santiago Ramón y Cajal – Biographical – from Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967, at Nobelprize.org

Santiago Ramón y Cajal: Spanish Histologist – by the editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Free Will and the Self

Free will and the self. What are they? While they are the two most important phenomena to each and every one of us, they’re notoriously hard to describe. Of course, we ‘know’ what they are: respectively, they are the experience, the feeling, of being in control of our own actions, of our thoughts and behaviors, and of having an identity and a personality that exists over time. Without them, our lives seem pointless: if we have no free will, then we are mere automatons, and we can take no credit and no responsibility for anything we do. If we have no self, then there is no we, no ‘I’, at all.

Experiments and scholarship by neuroscientists, biologists, psychologists, and others have revealed some starling things about the workings of the brain and how human beings think, behave, and make decisions. The field of neuroscience has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few decades since the advent of technologies that allow us to observe the living brain at work, though we’ve been learning much about the brain over the last few centuries by observing the results of damage to its various parts. These results have, in turn, thrown traditional accounts of the self and free will into question.

Many have gone so far as to say that since we’ve discovered that our actions result from the cause-and-effect processes of a physical brain, then we have no free will: our actions and all our thoughts are determined by the cause-and-effect laws of nature. And since we’ve discovered that the sense of self arises from the confluence of the workings of the parts of the brain, and damage or changes to those parts can cause radical changes to our personalities and the ways we feel about the world and ourselves, that the self is an illusion too.

Yet, how can free will and the self not exist when we experience them throughout our lives? Since we can talk about them to one another, they must exist in some sense, at least. And it’s not that they exist in the way that fictional characters in a story exist, for example, or other artificial creations. We experience these phenomena intimately, from the time we attain consciousness early in life, until the time our brains are so aged or damaged that we are conscious no longer. The concepts of free will and the self are ubiquitous in our language, our culture, the very way we think. Read this paragraph again, review all the thoughts you’ve had in the last hour (and ever had, in fact) and you’ll find that the concepts of ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we’ (distinct selves in the world), combined with the concept of some action or thought purposely performed by one’s self, are a constant theme. In fact, almost everything we talk and think about would be incoherent without these concepts, and all the purposes that drive us would disappear and render all we do meaningless.

So what gives? How do modern discoveries about the workings of the brain jibe with traditional concepts of free will and the self?

It appears the confusion results from the way we use the terms. There are actually two things we’re referring to. One is the actual experience of the phenomena we call ‘the self’ and ‘free will’. The other is how we account for them, how we define them and explain how they work.

Consider what we mean by other terms, such as ‘disease’. At one time or another, we had various explanations as to what these things are, and how they are caused. One popular explanation that convinced people for hundreds of years: disease is the result of the imbalance of the four humours of the body: blood, black and yellow bile, and phlegm. A physician’s job is to restore the balance and so bring about cure. Other explanations are vitalist (life and health are the result of the interaction between some sort of non-physical spiritual ‘force’ or ‘energy’ and a physical body), such as chiropractic and traditional Chinese medicine. Disease is cause by some sort of disruption in the body, and a physician’s job is to correct the alignment and communication channels of the parts of the body so that the vital force can flow freely and restore health. And the most pervasive and popular explanation of disease throughout human history, of course, is that it’s caused by the vengeance of an angry god or the maleficence of evil spirits (witch-burnings, anyone?).

Over time, human beings invented and developed the scientific method pioneered by Francis Bacon, and began to more carefully examine the correlations of disease symptoms with the circumstances in which they occurred (outbreaks of cholera mapped so that the epidemic was revealed to center on a polluted source of drinking water in 1830’s London; the correlation of damage to a particular parts of the brain to the symptoms of brain damaged patients; the dissection of corpses, comparing diseased organs to healthy ones). With the discoveries of the physical causes of disease, by pathogens and by damage to parts of the body, effective cures were finally able to be developed.

Given that the explanations for the origins of disease are based on the understanding that they’re natural, the result of physical processes, and traditional explanations, does that mean that disease can no longer be said to exist? Does that mean we have to come up with an entirely new terminology? I don’t think it does. The term ‘disease’ refers to instances of the body suffering in some way, not functioning as a healthy body does. What we do when we are confronted with the phenomenon of disease is the same as it ever was: we seek to avoid it, we detest being afflicted by it and seeing others afflicted by it, we seek to understand its causes, and we seek to cure it.

Similarly, the denial of the existence of free will and the self is based on the misguided assumption that understanding the inner workings of a thing, in a way incompatible with traditional explanations, is to deny that the phenomena exist at all. To understand that the mind is the product of a physical brain obeying the laws of nature rather than a sort of spirit or soul inhabiting a machine-body is not to say the mind doesn’t exist. The experience of free will and the self is the same either way, and whether what makes the ‘I’ an ‘I’ is better explained naturally or supernaturally makes no difference. We are still agents, it’s still what’s going on in our brains that cause everything we do, and we still make choices, and it’s still ‘we’ that make them.

In sum, discovering how the phenomena we experience that we’ve dubbed ‘free will’ and the ‘self’ really work doesn’t mean that they don’t exist; it just means we understand more about them now. And to me, as to other lovers of knowledge and understanding, that’s a good thing.

* Also published at Darrow, a forum on the cultural and political debates of today


Sources and inspiration:

Dennett, Daniel. ‘On Free Will Worth Wanting’. Interview on Philosophy Bites by David Edmunds and Nigel Warburton. http://philosophybites.com/2012/08/daniel-dennett-on-free-will-worth-wanting.html

Klein, Jürgen, “Francis Bacon”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/francis-bacon/

‘John Snow’, from BBC History series. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/snow_john.shtml

Kean, Sean. Interview on Inquiring Minds podcast by Indre Viskontes and Chris Mooney, published June 12, 2014 https://soundcloud.com/inquiringminds/38-sam-kean-these-brains-changed-neuroscience-forever

Metzinger, Thomas. The Ego Tunnel: The Science of Mind and the Myth of the Self. New York: Basic Books, 2009 http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5895503-the-ego-tunnel

Sharif, Azim F. and Kathleen D. Vohs. ‘What Happens to a Society That Does Not Believe in Free Will?’ Scientific American, June 2014. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-happens-to-a-society-that-does-not-believe-in-free-will/

 Wikipedia (various authors): ‘Daniel David Palmer’ (founder of chiropractic), ‘Humorism’, and ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’