Corrie Verbaan is a retired structural engineer living in Durban. He studied philosophy when younger and is a member of the Shakespeare Society of South Africa.
Who or what are we?
We have an unbroken lineal connection to our very first ancestor, the bacterium/protozoa/Protista or organo-chemical-molecular combination that jerked into reproductive life when the observable universe was a mere 10 billion years old.
The path of that strand of life evolved into billions of life forms (mostly extinct now) including, among the current survivors, us — leaving a trail of fossil history to prove it. It was a bumpy ride for evolving life as the planet groaned and belched fire, the crust cooled and cracked, tectonic plates drifted aimlessly about fracturing Pangaea into continental Laurasia and Gondwana, while a cocktail of two bits of hydrogen mixed with one bit of oxygen and violently stirred by bolts of lightning, became oceans. Survival became paramount; anything that could not adapt to the violent upheavals was consigned to File 13 — extinction.
A massive experiment was underway by Nature to select the ‘fittest’ life forms for reproduction, viz. fishes, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds and insects, as well as vegetation, fungi, viruses and bacteria, under constantly varying climatic conditions, providing all with the necessary instinctive behaviour for survival, including, most importantly, a central nervous system controlled by a brain.
We humans eventually threw off our hirsute anthropoid garments, descended to the plains and bipedalism, and began to wonder what it was all about. We hunted and gathered, made babies and stone tools and spread across the planet. With not a little hubris, we eventually called ourselves ‘wise’ (after we had learnt to use speech to communicate in ‘proto’ language), and were able to dominate our food supplies and competitors.
Eventually, we discovered that, as a sapient species, we could ‘work things out’. This became an obsession and had the result that there was no subject on or in the earth, oceans, sky or space that we did not want to know more about. We just had to know!
This led to OC — Obsessive Curiosity. Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
This desire to know emanated from the brain which was coupled to a spinal neural stalk comprising electro-chemical relay stations. The human brain grew and grew in volume and neural electrochemical complexity, the cranium expanding during evolutionary embryonic development to accommodate it. Our brain, as did the brains of other animals (particularly our primate relatives), gradually became ‘self-aware’.
This needs an explanation.
The brain’s internal interaction of trillions of neurons tightly networked three-dimensionally and nourished by glucose and oxygen-rich blood, developed into a throbbing autonomous ‘powerhouse’. This dynamic state of neural activity may be defined as ‘consciousness’; a condition of ‘self-awareness’ (which is absent in the pathological condition of ‘unconsciousness’). The state of consciousness is a ‘platform’ to energise the faculty we call ‘mind’, or ‘operating system’. In this state, the brain’s mind started to think, using its neural arsenal and newly acquired language and conceptual skills. True sapience emerged.
The journey of evolution equipped manifest life with sensors (or senses), in order to survive and reproduce, a mandate handed down to all life forms from the original ancestor, via Nature. These sensors conveyed the state of the external world to the brain via neural pathways and, via intricately interwoven somatic nerves, the internal world. The thinking brain/mind collectively became an interpreter able to coordinate the incoming sensations as well as the internal somatic nerve impulses with respect to its own survival.
The interpreter manipulated and assessed, as a coherent whole, the electro-chemical nervous systems, sensory input/output data, cognitive and memory functions, into thought processes. This is the real causal ‘experiencer’ — the quasi Self.
In its broadest sense, this sequence applies to all life so endowed.
A metaphor: The cranium is a fortified castle. The entrance guarded by an ivory portcullis of teeth; the defences are a biting jaw, reactive hands; the senses the ‘sentries’; neurons within, the scurrying messengers and servants; a tall, smooth, forehead the bulwark wall protecting the pre-frontal cortex, the reasoning faculty; the lord, housed within the keep, is the interpreter of incoming messages and sensations.
So, with survival at stake and guided by evolutionary law, the brain formed an ‘identity’ and sense of ‘agency’ or ‘selfhood’. The brain thus developed into a thinking organ wearing its concomitant body as a vehicle: senses for spatial orientation, organs for breathing, feeding and excreting, legs for locomotion, arms for manipulation, all mostly under the interpreter’s control, via extremely complex networks of nerves and spinal cord. Since survival was of utmost importance to the evolving organism, automatic responses to dangerous quotidian interactions were ‘hard-wired’ in by Nature, viz. fight, flight, feign, freeze, yield and other instinctive survival behaviours. The brain’s responses to compete/co-operate, with access to memory, became an option of choice by the faculties of discrimination and volition.
Control of autonomic life operations (heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, hormonal distribution, cell metabolism — mitosis and meiosis — organ functions, salinity, temperature and moisture content, pH level, digestion, immune systems) were denied direct access to the conscious brain by a selected genetic block, or ‘guardian’, for self-preservation. These are functions of vital importance for the organism’s survival, the responsibility for which the brain’s conscious agency, apparently, Nature could not trust.
So, in the beginning, the physical body was formed by the natural laws of genetic inheritance, the vital processes of which entered into the brain’s consciousness at birth. Further development of the infant’s brain took place by way of stimulation through external and somatic impressions and speech mimicry.
The brain became aware of its appendages (body/limbs) and its apparent centrality in the new environment: the ‘Brave New World’. Proprioception, nurture, language and mental activity followed with the result, as stated above, that the brain assumed an identity or self-awareness and acted, collectively, as interpreter.
The result of years of growth, learning, assimilation of parental and peer life interactions and social indoctrination mask the ‘true person’: the brain, with its complex cognitive ability. This ‘faux person’ is merely the container, the packaging, the physical body, the one in the mirror, the one that is named and who adopts a persona or ego — all false.
Humankind socialises, works, plays and breeds in a completely ‘blind’ and mostly instinctive fashion. The brain’s eyes cannot directly ‘see’ the other ‘person/creature’ (who is also the brain as agent); all that the eyes ‘see’ is the outer packaging. Re-phrasing that more accurately: all that the brain’s interpreter experiences, via its visual sensors, is the outer packaging. Every creature endowed with a brain is therefore physically invisible to each other.
Shakespeare touched on this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where he has a frustrated Helena say: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.”
Humanity’s interactions with each other are entirely based on customary convention, conditioning, appearance and behaviour of the ‘vessels’ interacting via their respective interpreters, i.e. brains. An individual’s brain utters words, performs actions and is responsible for social behaviour, all of which represents the ‘clothing’ of the mind, and the healthy condition of the mind is revealed by the quality of the subject’s behavior and speech. Since no two brains are identical, each brain could be said to develop a distinct ‘personality’.
When an impression arrives through a portal of sense, for example, sight, the brain/interpreter does not and cannot ‘see’ the object located externally in space. The visual stimulus is transmitted electrically from the rods and cones in the retinas to the appropriate centre in the brain, where the object is experienced in the mind. (Hamlet’s ‘mind’s eye?’).
The mind (or operating system) alerts other brain centres simultaneously in order to produce a coordinated physiological response as may be necessary. The evaluation of the (in this case) visual input into actual experience happens by a similar neural mechanism that causes the manifestation and experience of dream shapes, visions and imaginings. This mechanism is related to, and draws on, memory. It accounts for the confusion often caused by misinterpreting the ‘outer’ (sensational) world from an ‘inner‘ (dream) world.
This confusion results in the widespread, but erroneous belief, that the ‘outer’ sensational world comprises reality; when in fact the ‘inner’ world is the only reality to the brain’s interpreter’s subjective experience. Other sensory experiences derive similarly from the relevant neural memory stores as activated by the interpreter via the faculty of imagination.
So, the brain is the subjective experiencer, or interpreter, who may be rightly described as ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ for practical purposes of identification. All one’s apparent hopes, desires and ambitions, fears and disappointments, pleasure or pain, hubris or humility, sociability or aloofness, sympathy, empathy and altruism reside in the brain, including, importantly, the illusion of free will.
Faith, belief, opinion, religion, intelligence, philosophy, art, culture, superstition, language and creative skills, study, meditation, achievements deemed successful or failures, love, happiness or depression, courage or cowardice, extroversion or introversion, technical mastery or emotional disturbance, and all habits may be laid at the ‘feet’ of the brain’s interpreter.
Soul, essence, psyche, atman and all such names for a quasi transcendental entity within, are by definition imagined and thereby false. Only the living brain is credible.
At last, we have an answer to those enduring enigmatic statements:
Can the brain as ‘interpreter’ experience an awareness of itself?
Yes! But it would require a specific condition to achieve this, viz. complete stillness and mental inactivity, such as may be obtained by meditation. This would produce a state of Pure Being: a conscious state of rest and serenity. Unqualified ‘Is-ness’.
All personal experience of the world is subjective, having entered through the portals of sense, dream or memory. No experience is possible, be it pain or pleasure, ecstasy or despair, less it is experienced in the brain. External objects: stars or rocks, oceans or mountains, people or animals, all provide the sensory stimulus for subjective experience, but can never be experienced objectively.
What about the rest of the living creatures, our natural kin?
Similarly, they experience life subjectively only. To their respective degree of brain development and communication skills, they think, possibly in pictures or desires. The fact that Homo sapiens occupies (however unethically) prime position on earth is due to its brain’s acquisition and practical (mis)use of reason, perhaps the most important mental function.
Do different agents experience similar impressions in the same way as each other? Do I see what you see?
Yes! Inter-subjectivity is revealed in group activity, be it in business, sport, aggressive or peaceful interaction and social cooperation. In the absence of mental pathology, all species with similarly evolved ‘equipment’ clearly do have the same or similar subjective experiences under the same or similar circumstances.
What could account for antisocial or criminal behaviour in humans?
The answer is obvious. Behaviour antagonistic to the march through time of the naturally selected individual, or the species, indicates pathology in the perpetrator’s brain, with or without dysfunctional nurturing present in the formative years. Neural complexity in the brain and central nervous system is vulnerable to detrimental physical effects of disease, drugs or injury, or the harmful psychological effects of toxic conditioning.
Practical self-use of the brain
The mind, like an undisciplined child, sometimes ‘wanders off’ in directions unproductive to its own wellbeing. Without self-regulation or restraint it may ‘enter’ a dark state which is characterised by negativity, resentment, bitterness, sadness, depression and, if chronic, may lead to self-destruction.
It behoves the brain as interpreter/mind to recognise its waywardness at an early stage, otherwise, a remedy is difficult to apply.
A procedure that the brain can adopt to create a peaceful condition or avoid a dark state is the following:
This procedure may be described as ‘rebooting the mind’.
It is motivated and controlled by the brain itself and it is important to realise that feelings of self-worth or despair, joy or sadness, are the result of neuronal activity.
The practical implications of the concept that we, brain-endowed creatures, are invisible to each other suggest that:
NB: It’s not my packaging in love with your packaging, since my packaging is essentially senseless (only the brain senses).
Here is Shakespeare’s allegory of the golden casket, from The Merchant of Venice. Bassanio is attempting to win the hand of Portia:
So may the outward shows be least themselves;
The world is still deceiv’d with ornament …
Thus ornament is but the gulled shore
To a most dangerous sea; the most beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest. Therefore thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas I will none of thee. DM/ ML/ MC
Corrie Verbaan is a retired structural engineer living in Durban. He studied philosophy when younger and is a member of the Shakespeare Society of South Africa. An aficionado of the Greek classics, he most closely aligns himself with the Stoics.
"Everything is flux" ~ Heraclitus
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