Dennett on Damasio

Review of Damasio, Descartes’ Error
in the Times Literary Supplement, August 25, 1995, pp. 3-4.
Daniel C. Dennett
The legacy of René Descartes’ notorious dualism of mind and body extends far beyond academia into everyday thinking: ‘These athletes are prepared both mentally and physically,’ and ‘There’s nothing wrong with your body–it’s all in your mind.’ Even among those of us who have battled Descartes’ vision, there has been a powerful tendency to treat the mind (that is to say, the brain) as the body’s boss, the pilot of the ship. Falling in with this standard way of thinking, we ignore an important alternative: viewing the brain (and hence the mind) as one organ among many, a relatively recent usurper of control, whose functions cannot properly be understood until we see it not as the boss, but as just one more somewhat fractious servant, working to further the interests of the body that shelters and fuels it, and gives its activities meaning. This historical or evolutionary perspective reminds me of the change that has come over Oxford in the thirty years since I was a student there. It used to be that the dons were in charge, while the bursars and other bureaucrats, right up to the Vice Chancellor, acted under their guidance and at their behest. Nowadays the dons, like their counterparts on American university faculties, are more clearly in the role of employees hired by a central Administration, but from where, finally, does the University get its meaning? In evolutionary history, a similar change has crept over the administration of our bodies. Where resides the ‘I’ who is in charge of my body? In his wonderfully written book, Antonio Damasio seeks to …”

This is a fine review of a fine book! Thanks for reminding me of Damasio’s book, alexandra.

4 thoughts on “Dennett on Damasio

  1. from Dennett’s review:

    As Nicholas Humphrey has pointed out (in letters to me and Damasio), Friedrich Nietzsche saw all this long ago, and put the case with characteristic brio, in Thus Spake Zarathustra (in the section aptly entitled “On the Despisers of the Body”):

    “Body am I, and soul”–thus speaks the child. And why should one not speak like children? But the awakened and knowing say: body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body. The body is a great reason, a plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a herd and a shepherd. An instrument of your body is also your little reason, my brother, which you call “spirit”–a little instrument and toy of your great reason. . . . Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there stands a mighty ruler, an unknown sage–whose name is self. In your body he dwells; he is your body. There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom. [Kauffman translation, 1954, p.146]

    Old Nietzsche was on the ball, eh??


  2. This discussion about “I” reminds me of my understanding of the root word in ‘personality’: persona, meaning something along the lines of “the mask the actor wears.”

    There is no question in my mind (excuse the generalized pun) that my personality has changed incrementally over my lifetime and shall continue to change for as long as I live. I can even change it depending on circumstances and setting as the need may arise. But I have the nagging suspicion that there exists some part of my “I” that remains unchanging, a mostly silent partner and patient observer of my personality, the part of me that is always present, and whose occassional voice I have learned to disregard at my peril.

    It is entirely conceivable that my perceptions of this rare participant of the “I” is due to a brain disorder or chemical imbalance. There are those who would find this explanation quite satisfyingly reasonable on many levels. But I think it is interesting nevertheless that I have never had any reason to distrust this quiet companion. Quite the opposite, in fact. So when I come across mind/brain descriptions that utterly fail to take this stable presence into account, I give pause. My consciousness may be the result, product, or sum of my biology, but the indistinct actor seems to permanently remain.

    So if one were to split a brain and successfully implant the hemispheres into two willing brainless hosts (Dr. McCoy begins to reattach Spock’s brain and mutters: It’s child’s play, Jim!), I suspect the best one would end up with is two victims in a vegetative state and a third quite dead. Science may eventually prove my opinion wrong, but I think each of us comes with an initiator actor that cannot be subdivided by surgical means.

    Does this opinion necessarily mean I am unawake and unknowing? The magnificent mind of Nietzsche may assert as much – and I have yet to come across any of his opinions that do not deserve serious consideration – but I think no more and no less so than what exists in the mind of any other explorer. I also think we need to pay serious consideration to what lies not at the obvious biological centre of consciousness but at the fringe of our awareness of self. It is here that the boundary definition of “I” is to be found.


  3. I think that, like ~B, I too take as a given that I am, am conscious, and have intentions, pains, subjective states, wishes, hopes, and a whole bunch of “private and internal mental events” going on much of the time. Some of the stuff in philosophy of mind really is, as alexandra almost said about other claims, horse-t-shit (that’s a technical term in philsophy that means, roughtly, horse shit).

    Part of the problem we have is that Descartes’ vocabulary has us all entranced. “Mind/body”; “spirit/matter”; “subjective/objective”; “mental/physical” – all this dualistic talk has put us in a straight-jacket. Who ever said that there are only two kinds of stuff? Hell, maybe there are nineteen. Property dualism, substance dualism, both are limited probably wrong and not very useful in discussing minds. “There is nothing so silly but what some philosopher has said it.”

    I think Nietzsche is right. But that doesn’t entail that we have no soul, unless you are a dyed in the wool materialist. And materialists too are caught in Descartes’ dualistic web…


  4. While continuing the endless chore of boxing my life and shipping it back to Canada, I stumbled upon the August, 2002 issue of Scientific American. Among other fascinating topics, such as The Problem of Consciousness, Vision: A Window on Consciousness, and The Split Brain Revisited, this issue includes an article entitled: How the Brain Creates the Mind

    In it (and I hope it’s okay to get more physiological than philosophical for the moment) Antonio R. Damasio, Distinguished Professor and head of the neurology at the university of Iowa College of Medicine explains that his…

    “…proposal for a solution to the conundrum of the conscious mind requires breaking the problem into two parts. The first concern is how we generate what I call a “movie-in-the-brain.” This “movie” is a metaphor for the integrated and unified composite of diverse sensory images–visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and others–that constitutes the multimedia show we call mind. The second issue is the “self” and how we automatically generate a sense of ownership for the movie-in-the-brain. The two parts of the problem are related, with the latter nestled in the former. Separating them is a useful research strategy, as each requires its own solution.

    With the movie metaphor in mind, if you will, my solution to the conscious mind problem is that the sense of self in the act of knowing emerges within the movie. Self-awareness is actually part of the movie and thus creates, within the same frame, the “seen” and the “seer,” the “thought” and the “thinker.” There is no separate spectator for the movie-in-the-
    brain. The idea of spectator is constructed within the movie, and no ghostly homunculus haunts the theater. Objective brain processes knit the subjectivity of the conscious mind out of the cloth of sensory mapping. And because the most fundamental sensory mapping pertains to body states and is imaged as feelings, the sense of self in the act of knowing emerges as a special kind of feeling–the feeling of what happens in an organism caught in the act of interacting with an object.

    [In other words, the multimedia mind-show occurs constantly as the brain processes external and internal sensory events. As the brain answers the unasked question of who is experiencing the mind-show, the sense of self emerges.]

    Interestingly enough, Damasio is also the author of a book entitled, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain


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