I Am Not a Brain: Philosophy of Mind for the 21st Century, by Markus Gabriel

Are humans just a ‘pack of neurons’? Steven Rose is frustrated by a poorly argued challenge to the materialist consensus in neuroscience

September 21, 2017
Mind and body
Source: iStock

Call up Markus Gabriel on Google Images, and you’ll find a conventional-looking man. Clearly, he is a person, not a brain. But why, when this seems so clear, does a philosopher need to write an entire book justifying the obvious?

The answer, regrettably, is that many in my own discipline, neuroscience, seem determined to put the opposite case. Books claiming the “emotional brain”, the “sexual” brain, the “social” brain, even the “synaptic self” spill from my shelves. The message is clear, as DNA pioneer Francis Crick informed his readers, “you are nothing but a pack of neurons”.

Some philosophers, particularly in the US, have obediently followed them down what Gabriel calls the neurocentric route. In their view, consciousness is a “user illusion” fostered by folk psychology. Gabriel’s task, which he sets about with gusto, is to show where they are not just wrong but often stupid. He draws his arguments broadly, ranging from Fichte and Kant to Daleks and The Matrix, and even Pippi Longstocking. Philosophers are a fractious lot, but this is the first time I have seen a poor argument abruptly dismissed in print as “crap”.

Of course, the mind/brain debate in Western culture goes back at least to the Ancient Greeks, and Gabriel is well versed in this history. In its Cartesian form, the dispute concerns Descartes’ position that there are two kinds of stuff in the universe: one material, shared by all living forms; and the other mental (or soulful), possessed only by humans, which interacts with the material by way of particular sites in the brain. Materialists reject this dualism in favour of a unitary, mechanical world, of which today’s neurocentrism is a central part.

Gabriel has no truck with either position. Instead, he invokes what he calls different realities. To brutally simplify his complex argument, there is the reality of the natural sciences, which deals with brains, and there is the reality of our conscious lives, our thoughts and intentions, which are immaterial in the scientific sense. Our sense of self and of being free agents lie in this latter realm. Selfhood is important here, as it enables me to say: I am a person; I use my brain for thinking, just as I use my legs for walking.

But despite Gabriel, if my thoughts and intentions – wanting to get food out of the fridge, to use one of his regular examples – cause activity in the material world, then I cannot see how they can avoid being part of that world, or we collapse into exactly the dualism he rejects. His problem, I think, lies in his too narrow and old-fashioned conception of “natural science”, which he sees as dealing with the “thingyness” of nature. But psychology, sociology, even economics, are sciences; the worlds they deal with – which include the laws of football and the passion of Russian oligarchs to own English soccer teams – are material, and have considerable impacts on the “things” that other sciences deal with, even though they exist at an irreducible level of complexity greater than naive reductionists can deal with.

Enjoy the book for its sideswipes at the God debate and Gabriel’s sardonic political comments, but he is a wayward guide through the thicket of the mind/brain dichotomy.

Steven Rose is emeritus professor of neuroscience at The Open University.


I Am Not a Brain: Philosophy of Mind for the 21st Century
By Markus Gabriel; translated by Christopher Turner
Polity Press, 240pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781509514755
Published 8 September 2017

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Print headline: Not just a pack of neurons

Reader's comments (1)

- legs don't walk without a brain -

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