Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Neuroscientific Case for Heidegger

I've been debating Prof. Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking over the usefulness and relevance of Heidegger's work. I am putting the below excerpt from Antonio Damasio's excellent Self Comes to Mind as an example of a situation and behavior I believe to be very difficult to explain without reference to Heidegger's work refuting the substance ontology.

Briefly stated, the substance ontology tells us objects exist because they have physical form and we observe that physical form. Intuitively, this is a pretty plausible explanation, which is why it is been more or less unquestioned since Plato. Up until Kant, this led to a problem, one could examine objects (the Empiricists) or one could examine the contents of the mind (the Rationalists) but the two could not be reconciled. Something existed because it was physically there, so it was silly to say it had any relation to the contents of the mind. And yet, the mind felt like the most real thing for the Rationalists, and so we have the axioms of Descartes and Spinoza that start with the mind and then try to make a proof of the external world without any empirical recourse to it.

Building on Kant, Husserl created phenomenology, the idea that we can have access to the objects we interact with as well as ourselves by reflecting on the situations in which we interact with the objects. But this was still something taking place in our own heads, we had free reign in our own heads under Husserl, but what relevance did this have to the cold material world outside our heads?

Heidegger tells us that phenomenology has relevance outside our heads by taking on the substance ontology. He demonstrates that (as beings that have a stance on our own being) the physical properties of objects are not the primary stuff that make up the world. (There is an important distinction between the World, which has people in it, and the Universe, the realm of science, where this does not apply.) We don't go out and find a hammer, nails, and wood, and discover they have the properties of building a place to live in a certain way. Rather, the place to live in a certain way, connected with our stance on being, preexists and coordinates the use of the hammer, nails, and wood. The hammer doesn't exist primarily as piece of wood with a blob of metal on top, rather it exists primarily as something to build with. And this something to build with is based on our stance on our own being. Without a self, the coordination of these physical objects breaks down. I'm challenging Prof. Pigliucci to come up with a better philosophical explanation for the condition described below. In this case the self is lost, but the mind is perfectly capable of acting in an intentional manner towards objects consistent with the substance ontology.

Removing the Self and Keeping the Mind

Perhaps the most convincing evidence for a dissociation between the wakefulness and mind, on the one hand, and self, on the other, comes from another neurological condition, epileptic seizures. In such situations, a patient’s behavior is suddenly interrupted for a brief period of time, during which the action freezes altogether; it is then followed by a period, generally brief as well, during which the patient returns to active behavior but gives no evidence of a normal conscious state. The silent patient may move about, but his actions, such as waving goodbye or leaving a room, reveal no overall purpose. The actions may exhibit a “minipurpose,” like picking up a glass of water and drinking from it, but no sign that the purpose is part of a larger context, The patient makes no attempt to communicate with the observer and no reply to the observer’s attempts.

If you visit a physician’s office, your behavior is part of a large context that has to do with the specific goals of the visit, your overall plan for the day, and the wider plans and intentions of your life, at varied time scales, relative to which your visit may be of some significance or not. Everything you do in the “scene” at the office is informed by these multiple contents [contexts?], even if you do not need to hold them all in mind in order to behave coherently. The same happens with the physician, relative to his role in the scene. In a state of diminished consciousness, however, all that background influence is reduced to little or nothing. The behavior is controlled by immediate cues, devoid of any insertion in the wider context. For example, picking up a glas and drinking from it makes sense if you are thirsty, and that action does not need to connect with the broader context.

I remember the very first patient I observed with this condition because the behavior was so new to me, so unexpected, and so disquieting. In the middle of our conversation, the patient stopped talking and in fact suspended moving altogether. His face lost expression, and his open eyes looked past me, at the wall behind. He remained motionless for several seconds. He did not fall out of his chair, or fall asleep, or convulse, or twitch. When I spoke his name, there was no reply. When he began to move again, ever so little, he smacked his lips. His eyes shifted about and seemed to focus momentarily on a coffee cup on the table between us. It was empty, but still he picked it up and attempted to drink from it. I spoke to him again and again, but he did not reply. I asked him what was going on , and he did not reply. His face still had no expression, and he didn not look at me. I called his name, and he did not reply. Finally he rose to his feet, turned around, and walked slowly to the door. I called him again. He stopped and looked at me, and a perplexed expression came to his face. I called him again, and he said, “What?”

The patient had suffered and absence seizure (a kind of epileptic seizure), followed by a period of automatism. He had been both there and not, awake and behaving, for sure, partly attentive, bodily present, but unaccounted for as a person. Many years later I described the patient as having been “absent without leave,” and that description remains apt.

Without questions this man was awake in the full sense of the term. His eyes were open, and his proper muscular tone enabled him to move about. He could unquestionably produce actions, but the actions did not suggest an organized plan. He had no overall purpose and made no acknowledgement of the conditions of the situation, no appropriateness, and his acts were only minimally coherent. Without question his brain was forming mental images, although we cannot vouch for their abundance or coherence. In order to reach for a cup, a pick it up, hold it to one’s lips, and put it back on the table, the brain must form images, quite a lot of them, at the very least visual, kinesthetic, and tactile; otherwise the person cannot execute the movements correctly. But while this speaks for the presence of mind, it gives no evidence of self. The man did not appear to be cognizant of who he was, where he was, who I was, or why he was in front of me.

In fact, not only was the evidence of such overt knowledge missing, but there was no indication of covert guidance of his behavior, the sort of nonconscious autopilot that allows us to walk home without consciously focusing on the route. Moreover, there was no sign of emotion in the man’s behavior, a telltale indication of seriously impaired consciousness (emphasis in original).

Such cases provide powerful evidence, perhaps the only definitive evidence yet, for a break between two functions that remain available, wakefulness and mind, and another function, self, which by any standard is not available. This man did not have a sense of his own existence and had a defective sense of his surroundings.

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