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Does your brain construct your conscious reality? Part I

A reply to computational neuroscientist Anil Seth's recent TED talk

“It looks like scientists and philosophers might have made consciousness far more mysterious than it needs to be” Anil Seth, The real problem, Aeon, 2016

Anil Seth, a Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, recently gave a TED Talk about neuroscience and the mind, “Does your brain construct your conscious reality?”

Seth is highly credentialed. He co-directs the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science and is the Editor-in-Chief of the academic journal Neuroscience of Consciousness. So we can be fairly confident that he is mainstream in his approach to human consciousness. But his talk is a breathtaking compendium of fallacies on the mind and the brain. We can learn a lot from him—by understanding the errors into which he falls and the way out of those errors.

Seth begins by asking, “How does consciousness happen?” He answers: “…somehow, within each of our brains, the combined activity of many billions of neurons—each one a tiny biological machine—is generating our conscious experience… “

This one sentence offers several fallacies, each of which is vitally relevant to a genuine understanding of the mind and the brain.

The first fallacy:

“…[neurons] within each of our brains… [are] generating a conscious experience…”

We must first ask: What do we mean by consciousness? Clearly, consciousness entails first-person experience of some sort. Aristotle observed that there are, broadly speaking, two kinds of mental experiences: sensation and reasoning. Sensations are experiences of particular things—seeing a tree or smelling a rose, or hearing a friend speak. Reasoning, on the other hand, is abstraction, the understanding of universal things—the botany of trees or the biochemistry of roses, or the concept of friendship.

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Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

Our sensations of particular things do indeed arise from our bodies (from our eyes, nose, ears, or brain) but perceiving how these perceptions occur requires a quite different understanding of matter than we commonly have today. But our reasoning is not generated by our brains or by any part of our bodies. Our reasoning is an immaterial power of thought because it addresses immaterial universal concepts rather than material particular things.

Now of course, in ordinary life our immaterial ability to reason depends on the proper functioning of our material body: We can’t reason well if we are asleep or drunk, or in a coma from a brain injury. The brain is necessary for reason, but not sufficient. That is, reasoning depends on the brain but is not generated by it. Reasoning is immaterial.

How can we say with confidence that our reasoning is an immaterial power?

Consider a triangle. Seeing a particular triangle (e.g., a blue triangle drawn on a piece of paper on our desk in front of us) is an act of sensation. It is a material thought. We see blue, we see the lines and the angles they form.

But understanding triangularity—what it is that defines a triangle—is a wholly immaterial process. We understand triangularity in this way: A triangle is a three-straight-sided closed plane figure whose interior angles add up to 180 degrees. But no actual triangle fits these criteria: any drawn or constructed triangle will have sides that are not perfectly straight, whose interior angles will therefore not add up (if measured carefully with a protractor) to 180 degrees. All particular triangles that we perceive are imperfect. But imperfect triangles are not what we understand when we understand (reason) about triangles. The triangle of our reasoning is not the same as the triangles of our perception.

Now, a materialist might respond, “Yes, but we infer straight sides and 180 degrees from the approximations of material triangles. We infer perfection from imperfection, and thus our understanding of perfection is still material.” But that doesn’t explain the perfection our reason understands. In order to understand that an imperfectly drawn figure on a piece of paper in front of us is a triangle, rather than a sloppily drawn circle, a sharply curved line, or a meaningless set of pencil marks, we must first understand what “triangle” means. In that case, our understanding of triangularity is prior to our perception of triangularity. Our reason gives meaning to our perception, and thus cannot merely be our perception. Immaterial thought is something different from matter and is not merely a permutation of material thought.

So back to Anil Seth’s talk. When Seth says “…[neurons] within each of our brains… [are] generating a conscious experience…” he is mistaken. Our neurons may indeed generate our perceptions of particular things (and even that will require a much deeper understanding of thought and matter), but our neurons cannot and do not generate our understanding of universal concepts. Reason is not generated by the brain, despite the fact that it ordinarily depends on the brain for its normal exercise.

Seth’s talk is an exercise (however flawed) in reasoning and that reasoning is not generated by his brain. Ordinary thought, which is a stream of thoughts about particulars and universals, is a composite of perception and reason, and thus is a composite of material and immaterial powers that make up the human soul. Human beings are at the cusp of the material and the immaterial. We are both corporeal and spiritual.

It is worth noting that neuroscience strongly supports the inference to the immateriality of abstract thought. Seth’s materialist view is logically incoherent and scientifically unsupported.

Seth offers another fallacy as well, one that we will have a look at shortly.

Michael Egnor is a neurosurgeon, professor of Neurological Surgery and Pediatrics and Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, Neurological Surgery, Stonybrook School of Medicine

Also by Michael Egnor: Is free will a dangerous myth?


The brain is not a meat computer

Does your brain construct your conscious reality? Part I