Frequently these days when we hear some psychological expert explaining to us why we are the way we are we will hear such comments as “the brain interprets the situation as . . ,” “the brain makes us fear when . . .” , “the brain tries to avoid such dangers. . . .”, and the like. At the same time most neuroscientists believe that the brain is a purely mechanistic arrangement of neurons and synaptic pathways. According to almost all scientists and philosophers, matter does not intend to do anything, does not feel anything, and does not interpret anything. These are functions of mind, not matter. The brain somehow seems to be an exception if we are to believe these descriptions.
The brain is experienced quite differently from the inside than it is from the outside. From the inside I experience my brain in much the same way as I experience my computer. And there are indeed, parallels. My computer, to the best of my knowledge, does not try to do anything, does not interpret anything, and does not feel anything. Well, at times it does seem intent on frustrating some of my efforts, but I suspect that that’s an irrational interpretation to cover up my own incompetence. In reality it simply sits there unless I ask it to do something. Even then it doesn’t try to do the thing I ask. By typing in a command, I simply start a Boolean circuit that ends up with an outcome that I’m able to interpret. Although it seems like a mathematical wizard, I’m doubtful that it comprehends even the simplest thing that it does, such as adding 2+2. I believe it to be a mechanical device with no real intelligence whatsoever, if by intelligence we mean the ability to comprehend something. It doesn’t comprehend what it’s doing any more than a cash register at the supermarket comprehends the fact that it is totaling the cost of a lot of groceries. And, like the cash register, it is neither happy nor unhappy with anything I program it to do.
As I get a bit older I find that my brain does not supply me with the proper nouns that I want. Interestingly I know what I want, and I know what it means, even when I can’t retrieve the word. It feels a little bit like a computer that is getting old, and no longer able to do everything I would like it to.
While my brain may regulate the mechanics of my body, it doesn’t actually make me, as a person, do anything. I do what I do because I think about things in particular ways, experience them in particular ways, and strive toward particular outcomes. Perhaps the term “agency” can be used to capture the meaning of this thinking/ experiencing/willing that is at the core of what it means to be a conscious entity, or a “person.”
The conundrum underlying all of the paradoxes that I mentioned above is called the “hard problem” of philosophy. How is it that a unconscious pattern of purely material processes suddenly is able to be conscious of not only of external things, but is able to reflect back on its own self? Well, we’re told that that’s a process that we don’t yet understand but perhaps it originates in the amygdala, or in the frontal lobes, or somewhere by processes that we are just beginning to understand. The fact is that we aren’t just beginning to understand anything. The hard problem is just as hard as it ever was. How “matter” suddenly becomes “mind,” is not understood at all. At least by materialists it’s not. The fact is you can’t get there from here, as we say in Maine. If you begin with purely material processes you end with purely material processes. No matter how many billiard balls you have on the table and how complex their interaction is, they are still just billiard balls, and none of them gives a rats ass whether it makes it into the pocket or not. Mind-body dualism has its own problems, but the issue of how unconscious matter can become mind is not one of them. My own bias is that only some form of panpsychism can ever come close to dealing with the issue. But my concern here is actually not to solve the “hard problem.” My concern is more practical.
When persons are treated as things, we do violence to them. There are number reasons why this is true, but the most central one, it seems to me, is that we deny them agency. Persons do not do well when they are denied agency. Perhaps the profession that is most guilty of denying human beings agency, and therefore personhood, is psychiatry. Psychiatrists are no longer interested at all in a person’s story, or their aspirations. The psychiatrist provides the aspirations, which are almost always to become more like other people and fit into society better. And they see the person as a complex object. In so far as they listen to the person at all, they are simply listening for “symptoms” of the presumed underlying mechanistic difficulties. While psychiatrist take the leadership in this perspective, the whole mental health system is pervaded by this point of view. For this reason the mental health system is a dehumanizing process, and one of the most common sources of mental, interpersonal, and spiritual alienation in modern society.