When I was about 7 or 8, I visited my Aunt and Uncle, who had a summer cabin on a lake in Minnesota. One day my Uncle took me fishing, and with patience and a little help I caught myself a fine little bass. I was terribly excited to know that my fish would be part of dinner that evening, so when it came time for the fish to be cleaned, I was eager to watch. My Uncle was an expert with a knife, and I watched with morbid fascination as my flopping little fish was quickly reduced to a couple of white filets. As I hurried my filets to my Aunt for frying, I couldn’t help but wonder, where did the fish go? Of course I knew exactly where the fish went. I had watched the whole thing. And yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been had. A living, breathing fish had been reduced to parts, and something had been lost.
Science is often seen in the same light. The world is wondrous and magical, and science cuts it apart, leaving only tricks and tools we can use. Scientific reductionism may give us knowledge, but it destroys meaning. But that isn’t what science does at all.
When we observe brain function as a whole, for example, we are reduced to watching people’s behavior in the hopes of inferring the inner workings of the mind. With MRIs we can watch regions of the brain light up when we engage in certain behaviors. As a result, we understand how different regions of the brain generate various functions and behaviors. When we reduce the brain to parts, we understand things extremely well. The brain consists of neurons, which connect to each other via synapses. We have about a hundred million neurons, and more than a quadrillion (1015) synapses in our brains. We understand how neurons and synapses work. We understand how neurons communicate with each other. What we’ve found is that thoughts are sparks of electricity traversing a vast neural network. Ideas flow from one region of the brain to another. What we think, what we feel, and who we are is a lightning storm of sparks.
How then do we go from simple neurons to a conscious being? The short answer is we don’t know. This is not to say we know nothing. We actually know a great deal about how the conscious brain works. For example, we can watch the brain shift from rational problem solving to unconscious. fear-driven survival mode. We have learned that consciousness is not an on or off state, but rather comes in varying degrees.
But when we go from whole to parts, whatever it is that “we” are seems to go missing.
There are some who look at this mystery and declare that there lies the human soul. But to take such a position is to declare that the human soul is trapped by ignorance. It is slowly killed off as science discovers new pieces to the puzzles of the mind. A “soul of the gaps” isn’t very satisfying. Neuroscientists are convinced that mind and brain are one of the same. Our thoughts, feelings and personality are all emergent properties of neurons and synapses. There is mystery to the brain, but no magic. There is no ghost in the machine. Atoms, molecules, neurons, synapses. Parts.
But of course, evolution tells us that we are not machines. We are organisms connected to the world around us. In the same way, neuroscience tells us our brains are not computers. We do not follow blind programming, following some sort of decision tree. Instead our brains process information holistically, and the choices we make are likewise holistic. There is no single switch which makes us choose option A over option B. Our brains also do something computers generally don’t. Because the connections between neurons strengthen and weaken depending on how they are used. This means the structure of our brains are affected by the ideas flashing around our head. Our brains shape our thoughts, and our thoughts shape our brains.
It is a subtle and beautiful picture of ourselves. Not machines, not computers, but sentient living creatures connected to the world around us.
As many of us gather together for a Thanksgiving meal, it can be a time for celebration, and of connecting again with those we love. It can also be a time of tension, trapped in a house with those who hold radically different political or philosophical views. At times like these it’s easy to reduce people to parts. A particular political view, or a strongly held bias. But those are just a part of a larger whole. In reality we are all complex creatures, and our connection to the world is built upon our interactions with the world.
And on the whole, our world is something we can all give thanks for.