The Brain, the Whole Brain and Nothing but the Brain

This blog post stems from another discussion (elsewhere) that segued into the topic of mind versus brain. In order to illustrate that the mind is more than just the brain, I described the following scenario . . .

What it would be like if you were born completely paralyzed, with a normal brain but without a sensory nervous system to deliver stimuli to your brain from your sensory organs? Would it be possible to think or to have memories? In what ways could you be considered human or alive or conscious?
If you were born completely paralyzed, you would not have motility. If you had no sensory nervous system, you would be 100% insensate: unable to detect the world in any way. No hearing; no speech; no olfactory, gustational (taste) or tactile feedback: absolutely nothing -- except an otherwise functioning brain. That is the scenario: a brain without any possible form of interaction outside of itself (i.e. your brain can't detect your own body or the external world).

Another scenario (though very sci-fi) with a similar result would be a fully human brain cloned in the laboratory. Using sci-fi technology, it is kept functioning and healthy in a high-tech container. However, it has no sensory nervous system or artificial means to receive stimuli of any kind. The only difference between this scenario and the original one is that the brain is housed in a high-tech container instead of the skull of a paralyzed and insensate human body.

My purpose in raising this prospect was to drive home the point that the mind is more than the brain. The mind relies on the sensory nervous system, sensory organs and environment as much as it does on the brain.
  1. Without stimuli from the environment, there would be nothing for our sense organs to detect.
  2. If there were stimuli but no sense organs, there would be no way to detect the stimuli.
  3. If there were both stimuli and sense organs but no sensory nervous system, there would be no way for stimuli to reach our brains.
  4. If there were no brain, there would be no way to process the stimuli from the environment that was detected by our sense organs and passed along by our sensory nervous system.

There has been research and findings that support my position. For instance, it is thought that ideas can't form without symbols. Also, feral children have consistently shown that the brain's ability to learn language is severely constrained after childhood. Obviously, without experiences, there would be no memories or learning. Creativity requires ideas. Where would ideas come from without contact with the external world? Emotions are contextual; what emotions could you have?

Anyway . . . my question, based on this scenario, is: can there be "mind" (cognizant consciousness) with just a brain and without interaction of any kind external to the brain?

Views: 62

Comment by CJoe on September 15, 2009 at 10:54pm
Wellll... what do they say about Steven Hawking? I don't know his entire story, only that he started degenerating in college. He looks paralyzed, but I suppose the issue is that his muscles have metastasized. Does he still experience his body? Obviously, he has had experiences in his past to draw from. Whatever the case, he does seem to be a mind trapped inside an inoperable body... and a pretty efficient mind at that.
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 16, 2009 at 12:03am
Yes, Stephen is phenomenal. However, his condition developed in adulthood. He had an extensive education and plenty of life experience. My scenario involves zero experience, from conception onward (i.e. not even in utero experience).
Comment by Doug Reardon on September 16, 2009 at 12:21am
I doubt it would even be aware of it's existence.
Comment by skool on September 16, 2009 at 4:59am
My guess would be that they would appear to be brain dead for all intents and purposes. If there is no information coming in there can be no processing. Without processing there is no thought.

Having said that people who are deprived from sensory stimulus often experience auditory and visual hallucinations. Whether this will happen with someone who has never experienced anything...
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 16, 2009 at 8:45am
This hypothetical scenario is really targeted at the physical reductionists out there who claim the mind IS the brain. The mind is dependent on the brain but it's also dependent on our nervous system, body (sense organs) and environment. The mind can NOT be reduced to mere electro-chemical signals between neurons. Mind is a synthesis of all these things.
Comment by skool on September 16, 2009 at 1:44pm
Hmm... I agree and disagree. Prepare for a long analogy:

I like to think of the mind as a information processing machine, like a computer. I believe that the point which you are trying to make is that the brain is the hardware and the mind the software. The hardware doesn't care what information you enter on the keyboard it merely transmits it to the software. The software then processes it and produces output. However the software of a computer changes in main memory depending on what the input was. So your first point makes sense given the way you are defining the mind/brain.

However, continuing the analogy, in this case the input, processing and output of this information machine can be uniquely defined by the electrical signals between the components. Analogously we don't have to consider the environment when defining mind but merely the effect it has on sensory organs and therefore on the electrochemical signals sent from those organs to brain. The mind is reduced to 'mere' electrochemical signals.

If alternatively you define the mind as the set of process which operate on the information sent from the sensory organs then the mind is clearly independent from the environment. In the same way that a computer program is independent from the input that you enter into it.
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 16, 2009 at 9:56pm
Yes, the computer is the preferred paradigm of contemporary culture. It's compared to many different things. However, equating an inanimate collection of electronics to the mind is like comparing apples to oranges. They're just not the same. You can point to generalized similarities but their properties are not interchangeable.

An analogy takes an understood thing to help make sense of something not understood. It's a tempting mistake to take the analogy too far by turning similarities into equivalencies.

The analogy of computer and mind, in general, makes this mistake.
Comment by skool on September 17, 2009 at 7:02pm
True, I completely agree it is a tenuous analogy. However I was using it to illustrate a point not to infer one. Meh, either way, good post :)
Comment by Atheist Ninja on September 21, 2009 at 1:07am
How could one be aware of them self, without the ability to be aware at all?

Essentially, as far as I can understand it, you're saying "How can the brain be merely the brain when it cannot function without external stimuli? It serves no purpose without any input".

This argument is like saying, is a cup truly a cup, if you've never put a drink in it? After all the purpose of a cup is to contain a drink.

I don't understand your path of logic in saying that this constitutes a mind separate from the brain, I only see that a brain needs something to process, or else it's just wasted.
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 21, 2009 at 2:01am
@Atheist Ninja

The point, in case it wasn't clear in one of its iterations, is that the mind is MORE than the brain. I'm addressing the physical reductionists out there who claim that the mind IS the brain.

I've just reread my post and fail to see how you can miss the point. Your question, "How could one be aware of them self, without the ability to be aware at all?", appears to admit that the brain can't be aware ON ITS OWN. That's my point! The mind is MORE than the brain. It's also our sensory nervous system, sensory organs and the external environment. The mind is equally nonfunctional if ANY of these components are missing, from birth.

You keep using the word, "brain", and omitting the word, "mind". This strongly suggests you're completely missing the point -- by a mile. Try reading it more carefully. I don't see anybody else experiencing the same lack of comprehension.

HINT: This hypothetical scenario is just a springboard for discussion of philosophical issues such as nature of mind, monism versus dualism and even freewill versus determinism.


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