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 would it 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?

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Comment by Atheist Exile on September 18, 2009 at 4:20am
Hi Jimmo,

Yes, you're right about the brain being inseparable from the nervous system under normal circumstances. The point of this exercise was to illustrate to the physical reductionists out there that the mind is more than the brain. Yes, the mind relies on the brain but it also relies on the nervous system, sensory organs and ambient/local environment. If it were cut off from any of these, the mind would disappear as surely as it would if the brain were removed.
Comment by Jim Mo. on September 18, 2009 at 12:45am
Ooo, I like this neuro-stuff and thought experiments. Complex ideas. It seems like a philosophical approach to the mind/body question. From a evolutionary point of view, I have to wonder if it makes sense. I will have to read more about this. My current thoughts says the brain is an integral and in separable part of the nervous system which evolved as an advantageous adaptation to the whole body. Did not the first brains emerge as special bundles of otherwise regular nerves? Why would one separate the brain from the rest of the nervous system and think that something would exist or emerge in the isolated brain? I guess one must be looking for evidence of a dualistic reality or one is thinking that just thinking about stuff can somehow be independent of the effect (on the brain) of experience through the senses. Just my thoughts.
Comment by Jason Spicer on September 17, 2009 at 9:09pm
I think the answer is, as you suggest, that the brain would not function normally, if at all. Brains need exercise in order to develop, just like the rest of the body. The feral children examples provide compelling evidence in at least one area of brain function. I see no reason to think functions besides language wouldn't be similarly affected by such deprivation. I highly recommend Descartes' Error, by Antonio Damasio, for a fascinating exploration of the intimate connection between body and mind.

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