The Wonder and Blunder in Your Skull
Even when it goes awry, the brain wins an award of cosmic proportions, according to a veteran psychiatrist.
In an article for the BBC News about Sir Robin Murray’s lifelong research into the causes of schizophrenia, the interviewer put the most significant quote in the first paragraph:
“We won’t be able to understand the brain. It is the most complex thing in the universe,” says Professor Sir Robin Murray, one of the UK’s leading psychiatrists.
Earlier this month, though, Chris Stringer entitled an article in Nature (485, May 3, 2012, pp. 33-35, doi:10.1038/485033a ), “Evolution: What makes a modern human.” He seemed more interested in the skull – the container – than the cosmic superlative inside it.
PhysOrg, likewise, put the human brain on an evolutionary continuum with those of mice, even though the scientists admitted mouse brains have not evolved since mice first scurried about. “The brains of larger mammals, such as humans, however, have a completely different structure to those of mice,” the article said, leaving some readers to wonder how evolution can produce opposites – stasis and radical restructuring – within a single theory.
How does evolution get from brain to mind? Current Biology (22:10, R392-R396, 22 May 2012, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.03.033) recognized the philosophical difficulty in trying to explain, in material terms, something as simple as our conscious experience of qualia (singular, quale), i.e., “the phenomenal aspect of consciousness or ‘what it is like’ character of subjective experience.”
Perhaps the most difficult biological question of all might be how and why electrochemical neuronal activity in the brain generates subjective conscious experience such as the redness of red or the painfulness of pain. Neuroscientists track how light impinging on the retina is transformed into electrical pulses (neuronal spikes), relayed through the visual thalamus to reach the visual cortex, and finally culminates in activity within speech-related areas causing us to say ‘red’. But how such experience as the redness of red emerges from the processing of sensory information is utterly mysterious. It is also unclear why these experiences possess phenomenal characteristics, which can be directly accessed only from the subject having the experience. This is called the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness as coined by the philosopher David Chalmers.
This was no problem at all for Dan Jones, though, who in New Scientist argued that evolution wired our brains to argue. Indeed, contra Sir Robin Murray, he believed he could understand the brain. Darwin showed him how. In “The argumentative ape: Why we’re wired to persuade,” Jones tried to persuade readers that evolution wired us to engage in several logical fallacies, including confirmation bias. “We’re all guilty of flawed thinking because our brains evolved to win others round to our point of view – whether or not our reasoning is logical,” he argued persuasively, using game theory and other methods to show how our brains “evolved to” do this or that deceptive thing.
Jones was sure he was not guilty himself, even if he didn’t take time to explain how he himself got outside of evolution to look back at the rest of humanity from an unguided process that produced a “flawed instrument” geared to “dupe others” rather than to recognize logic, reason, and truth – let alone qualia.
Didn’t Robin Murray discuss paranoia and schizophrenia as delusions? “”The amazing thing about schizophrenia is these are people who have to live their life without being able to believe their senses,” he said. “When you or I hear something we know that it is real.” Yet Dan Jones can look at the most complex thing in the universe and argue, as if he believes what he is saying is true and real, that it is the result of pointless mutations that resulted in our brains evolving to manipulate others.
Exercise: Prove that Dan Jones is not manipulating you but is logically speaking truth by using reason. Use only Darwinian presuppositions. (Warning: this is an exercise in futility.)
Follow-up exercise: Provide an evolutionary explanation for the quale of futility.