Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sick of the brain

Can I tell you how sick I am of the Brain? The 90s were the decade of the Brain and it's all been very exciting... But how do we get past the brain and back to personhood? I know at least N believes I worship the god of Science at an electronic shrine (! :) and while I do take quite an interest in cognitive science, I getting more and more wary of mentioning it in my classes. At the same time, I find it to be of increasing political import to raise for discussion.

For example, today, I read my students latest paper proposals... Soooo many of them are convinced that the mind is the brain, is a person. What do I do?!? Seriously... I mean, for my own sanity! If I read one more paper that cites a biology text book to refute Aquinas or Descartes, I'm going to scream! I encourage them to draw examples from popular culture or media... As a result, several of my students cite this persnickety article that is supposed to disabuse me of the view that one should study philosophy before 1985.

I just feel like I am totally failing if they leave my class thinking that... So far, we've only read Aristotle, Aquinas, and Descartes. I just can't convince them that describing personhood involves describing anything but the action of a collection of machine-like parts.

As if my students weren't enough, my therapist recently recommended
Louann Brizendine The Female Brain. (My therapist and I are now "breaking-up") The book was trashed by Nature as "psychoneural indocrination," and there would be no need to harp on it if it weren't still selling and popular. But it is... and I think it deserves a good thrashing from a phenomenological level too.

Brizendine essentializes both gender and brains. She basically claims that there are two types of brains and, equivalently, two types of people. One, the female brain, was "marinated" in estrogen (her words) early on and thus capable of all kinds of interpersonal connections that that the un-marinated male is not. Male brains lead to semi-autistic behavior and definitely to infidelity. If you, perchance, do not identify with her phenomenological account of female experience, then you are just less female and more male (or perhaps just less human, I'm not sure). (Lesbians, apparently, were just improperly marinated.) She mentions some vaguely feminist concerns in the introduction and conclusion, but declares that she had to put aside political scruples in the service of scientific truth. The critiques she imagines seem limited to those possibley posed by second-wave feminists; she makes no mention of third wave feminism, gender studies or queer studies.

Not only does Brizedine essentailize genders but she essentializes brains. Sure, these brains show up in bodies, but just as isolated organs popped inside a ready-made shell that in itself contributes little to identity, knowledge, or experience.

What do we do with this sort of material? Again, on the one hand, if this is bad work on so many account, perhaps it doesn't deserve refutation or further discussion and publicity. On the other hand, if my students' papers are any indication, then this book is just a timely reflection of the dominant culture... and in a way, not to spend time refuting it is politically lazy.

My students are very concerned about animals and the environment. I feel I should be able to exploit this... at least as a distraction from The Brain.


Noah said...

God, that Brizedine book sounds awful. I hope you sent your (ex-?)therapist that Nature review. (One of the authors of the review is at McGill. w00t! Montreal represent.)

As for your students, I can think of two strategies you might take up. (They're not mutually exclusive.)

One would be to mobilize their own lived experience against their shallow, poorly understood theoretical views about selves and brains. You might do this by asking them questions like:

When you play football/basketball/etc., is it your brain that's playing?

When you hug or kiss another person, is your brain hugging or kissing their brain?

When you love someone, is it their brain that you love?
(MP has a nice phrase about this in the Institution lectures: "One does not love a person, one does not love a body, one loves a life established in a body.")

When you go through puberty, is your brain the only thing that changes?

When you want to know how someone is feeling, or who they are, do you examine their brain?

When you are trying to figure out if an action is right or wrong, do you do it by studying neuroscience or human evolutionary history?

The other strategy you might use would be to examine their views about brains on a theoretical level, looking at conceptual presuppositions and empirical evidence. This might be a little hard for Philosophy of the Person students. But you've already done a bit of the groundwork by reading Descartes.

In response to that NYT article, for example, you could point out that the brain-reductionists who claim to have rejected Descartes have in fact embraced him: they've eliminated the immaterial mind, but uncritically accepted the Cartesian view of the body. The very idea that the mind resides in the brain is due to Descartes. Pineal gland, anybody?

After that, I don't know... You could read some MP: he's got that nice little volume on "The World of Perception" that's very accessible, they're transcripts of a series of radio broadcasts he gave.

Or you could use Aristotle on the difference between living ("natural") and non-living things, and talk about the difference between machines and livin bodies (since the claim that we are our brains usually rests on the views that brains are computers, thought is computation, and our bodies are machines).

Ah. Back-seat teaching is so much easier than actual teaching...

Mlle. Le Renard said...

Hey N, thanks for good thoughts. I think I will try two things: 1. emphasize how determinism and mind-as-machine are connected... they don't seem to mind being brains, but maybe they will mind being un-free? (suggested by a Seattle U colleague) and 2. some of the examples you give of higher level of intentional activity such as loving a person or developing through puberty. I think playing sports or kissing they'd just toss off as brain states. But I have already stressed that "soul" describes identity across change... they had a hard time with that.

And of course I always include M-P on my syllabus! But actually, that usually goes down easier. The trick is to persuade them first of Aquinas, then Descartes, then Kant... because they want to dismiss everyone before 1950 on grounds that they just didn't know about brains.

Funny how different the challenges with students at this school are than our alma mater: liberal materialists vs. conserative dualists!

merci merci

Anonymous said...

Hey Noah,

when you wrote "MP" in your notes I assumed you meant Marianne Pelton. Isn't that cute? I thought you were quoting you very smart wife. It wasn't until later that I realized you probably meant Merleau-Ponty.

Kate McKenna

Noah said...

I'll have to do a series of Marianne quotes, now. You leave me no choice.