The Brain - Part 1
The astonishing hypothesis, materialism and dualism
This is a ‘random’ post on a blog that tends to focus on or around watches… but it covers an area of interest which may be as fascinating to you, as it is to me - it still falls within the remits I set for the posts on this page, under ‘psychology and philosophy’, so I figured I would put it out here anyway! I also decided that adding a paywall was a good way to thank paying subscribers for their patronage, and I suppose this act alone might alienate some free subscribers - if that is the case, feel free to comment and let me know that this is something you would like to see as well. I am still figuring this out myself. Not once did I ever imagine anyone would pay to read this stuff, but with so much unexpected support, I feel obliged to repay the confidence with a little extra value.
The Astonishing Hypothesis
This theory stems from a book by the Nobel prize winning biologist Francis Crick, called The Astonishing Hypothesis. Loosely speaking, the Astonishing Hypothesis is that you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.
This assembly of nerve cells is of course, the brain (and parts of the spinal cord, but we're going to talk about the brain!).
The idea then, as sometimes people like to put it: the mind is the brain or the mind is what the brain does or mental life emerges from the brain.
The official term for this is materialism i.e. that we are material beings (as opposed to idealism, where mind and consciousness are first-order realities to which matter is dependent while material interactions are secondary). Everybody accepts that our arms and legs, or heart and kidneys are made from the same ‘matter’ as rocks, cars and cups… But the idea here is that our mental life, what makes us special… our most intimate feelings and thoughts also arise from these material things. This is the idea that makes possible the discipline of neuroscience and much of psychology.
Materialism is regarded as an odd, perhaps unnatural view. For the most part, people are far more attracted to the doctrine called Dualism. Dualism is an idea that's been found in just about every religion and every philosophy. It's made explicit in Plato, for instance, but the most thoughtful and articulate defender of dualism was probably Rene Descartes.
The more modern versions of dualism have their origin in Descartes’ Meditations, and in the debate that was consequent upon Descartes’ theory. Descartes was a substance dualist. He believed that there were two kinds of substance: matter, of which the essential property is that it is spatially extended; and mind, of which the essential property is that it thinks.
Descartes believed that animals were material things, and believed the doctrine of materialism was correct about non-human animals… “But humans are different” he argued. For humans, he proposed there is a duality. We are composed of material, sure; but we are also in part spiritual, separate, mental, psychological… In some manner which doesn't reduce to the material.
He made two arguments for this, quite persuasive at the time… and they continue to persuade many people: