23 Guru goo

Posted on July 17, 2011 by


One of my favorite subjects is « consciousness » trying to understand how the mind works. This has been the subject of armchair speculation ever since apes have emerged as humans from the Rift Valley – I suspect.

Scientific understanding of “consciousness” has emerged in the last twenty years, both as the result of better understanding of brain lesions as well as imaging of the brain. Neuroscience is a fascinating subject – for me it is an unending source of exciting surprises. Not long ago I discovered “mirror neurons”[1]. Not only are they activated by some action, they respond to the mere sight of action by another beings. This allows “empathy” – understanding how the “other” feels” or “why he acts”. Imitation (and probably much more) finds its source in this capacity of the brain. Some apes have mirror neurons – but we are tops here.

Of course, this approach does not go down well with philosophers who think deeply about consciousness. An example I recently came across is Dr. Raymond TALLIS: in The New Humanist 4/11[2]. He rails against what he calls “biologism” (Neuromania, Darwinitis) “the incorrect assumption that human consciousness is identical with brain activity and that the mind is a cluster of “apps” conferred on us by natural selection” and proposes a new vision instead:

But developing a cognitive science in which brain, body and world intertwine, and “beyond-the-skin” factors are accorded fully paid-up cognitive status, is objectionable only if we cannot see the inescapably relational aspect of consciousness, which begins in the “aboutness” or intentionality of perceptions and is elaborated in the complex referential structures of the beliefs, factual knowledge and normative sense that
constitute most of our consciousness.”

I freely admit that I do not understand a word of what he intends – to me this is an example of what he himself disparagingly calls, in his very article, “guru goo”. Whatever he means – it is pure prophecy.

In itself this would not be notable, and worth a notelet, were it not for the hidden assumption behind the “theory” (this is not in fact a “theory”, for it cannot be falsified). One may, however, ask Dr. Raymond TALLIS whether he has considered the O-hypothesis at all, namely that our brain is just not up to the task he describes needs to be done – understanding consciousness.

A blind person may “feel about” an elephant’s body, flailing with his hands in a hopeless attempt to understand the animal through touching. Would stepping away from it help this observer in his attempt to get to the essence of the elephant?

[1]              V. S.
Ramachandran has done pioneering work in this area. One may start exploring this
world here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vilayanur_S._Ramachandran