Descartes and Neuroscience

Whatever I have accepted until now as most true has come to me through my senses. But occasionally I have found that they have deceived me, and it is unwise to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.” – Descartes First Meditation

The early 17th century philosopher and scientist Rene Descartes made this comment about the nature of reality, illuminating a mistrust in the sensory array that we all use to gather all the primary information about the external world.

Touch, Taste, Smell, Sound and Sight.

Before we knew about the properties of light and how refraction occurs, it would have been a strange thing to watch a stick immersed in to water, watching what seems like a conjurer’s trick, as the stick bends as it enters the water, but appears perfectly straight when it is removed once more.  However, things are not strange until you start to question them and ponder on why it happens, rather than just accept it.

There is good reason to mistrust the sensory array.  The above example is just one of many examples that we experience in every day life, that if we use only our senses, we will be fooled in to thinking all sorts of strange things happen in the world.  A mistrust in the sensory array allows us to begin questioning what is really happening ‘out there’ in reality.

“… Whether I am awake or asleep, two plus three makes five, and a square has only four sides. It seems impossible to suspect that such obvious truths might be false.” – Descartes

This rationalist approach to reality investigation relies on what is thought to be intrinsic knowledge – that which is free of sensory experience.  This is the approach Descartes takes, as opposed to the empiricist’s approach, who believes that all knowledge comes from sensory experience.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Rationalism vs. Empiricism

“I shall think that the sky, the air, the Earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely dreams that the demon has contrived as traps for my judgment. I shall consider myself as having no hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as having falsely believed that I had all these things.” – Descartes

This method of thinking is not dissimilar to the more modern thought experiment which asks the question:  How can one know that one is not just a brain in a vat, being stimulated by a computer / other being to make it seem as though there is a reality occurring around us.

Modern neuroscience is essentially attempting to map the brain.  It aims to find what parts of the brain relate to what aspects of our consciousness, through finding the chemical and electrical signal chains.  Through neuroscience, we can start to understand that reality is not all it may seem to our consciousness.  The question of whether or not we are being tricked by a demon, or are a brain in a vat feels an irrelevant one to me, up until the point at which this truth is illuminated.  I consider it akin to believing in any metaphysical ‘other’, like a God or a place such as Heaven.  The more interesting question is to analyse how reality is processed by our brain, what reality actually is and how consciousness arises from these two things.

Descartes is right to question our senses.  One should never wholly trust their sensory data.  However, this is a difficult position to live day to day believing.  One must be aware that our senses constantly play tricks on us, but also realise that the senses are the primary source of our brain receiving information.  It seems a better idea to get to know how our senses work, how our brain works and how this relates to the reality we experience than to consider oneself at the constant whelm of a tricky demon.

How does our consciousness arise?  It seems that there are many answers to be found in researching how the brain works.

The stroke victim Gisela, in the above video offers an interesting insight in to how reality is processed by our brain.  It seems that our senses pick up a range of dynamic data from the external world, which is then processed by various different aspects of our brain.  Many aspects of sight are broken up in to different parts so the brain can properly process all the information quickly enough for us to feel like we are having a direct experience of what’s going on ‘out there’.
Like a super computer with many parrallel processes running at once, this divides up the huge task of data processing, allowing our brain to efficiently give us the data necessary to go about life.
Gisela, who suffered from a stroke which effected a very specific part of her brain has lost the ability to comprehend visual motion.  Although all of her other senses tell her that things are moving, Gisela experiences the world as series of frozen images.  She is still able to deduce that movement occurs, as the image she sees is eventually updated by a new one, allowing her to compare where something was and where it is now.  Using her other senses, she can also correlate her data and still process movement.

Our senses pick up huge amounts of specific data about the Universe that is before our bodies, sends the information to the brain which then descrambles the data, giving us the moment-to-moment experience of consciousness and allowing our bodies to be sustained.  What of the data that our brain considers useless though?  And what about that which our senses can not pick up, that which lies outside of the dynamic range of our sensory array?

Descartes relies on what he considers intrinsic data to question reality.  Data which seems to him to be free of the problems of the sensory array.  Where does this intrinsic knowledge come from?  If a human baby is born, and is kept in a place of total sensory deprivation for all of its life, what does this human know?  What does this human experience?

In the above video, the neuroanatomist, Jill Taylor describes her conscious experience of having a stroke.  Jill’s description, which becomes quite emotional, seems to show that our brain is like a filter for reality.  And it is possible to turn that filter off or at least lower it, giving someone a disturbing and mystical seeming experience.

We trust our senses as humans, because it keeps the human form continuing, but the experiences that underpin imagination, religion and philosophy seem to elude to there being more than just being a human.

Is consciousness a physical process which only relates to our brain?  Or is it a fundamental law of nature, that our brain filters to give our human form the experience of being a unique individual for the time that the human form is sustained?

Descartes uses something quite unique that allows us to comprehend his idea.  Descartes communicates with us.
Touch, taste, sight, sound, smell.  We experience the world through these.  However, we humans have developed the ability to extend beyond the limitations of our individual experience, and through the most sophisticated communication techniques ever observed in the natural world, we are able to share our ideas and thoughts with each other, thus essentially extending our minds to eachother.  We are all mirrors of humanity, reflecting the culmination of all that has come before us to the now moment.

As our communication techniques become faster, better and more sensory engaging, we are able to communicate more and more sophisticated concepts to each other in increasingly more efficient ways.  Many people often separate human creations from natural creations.  There seems to be a tendency to think of our creations as unnatural, compared to those things which arise outside of human interference.  Is it not better to understand ourselves as natural, and our creations as the natural evolution of humans toward what may culminate in to a new life form?  Like the millions of cells that come together to create our body, is it not possible that through increasingly sophisticated communication techniques, all of humanity are like cells, coming together to create a new, grander life form?

The Mayan saying, “In Lak’ech Ala K’in” roughly translates to, “I am another you and you are another me”.  This ancient saying reflects a wisdom that is perhaps being re-realised today, through scientific investigation and new philosophical insight.  As individuals, it is difficult to truly trust our sensory array, but perhaps we are forgetting that we are not in fact JUST individuals.  We are a collective.  We would never know what questioning ones senses means if we did not have the ability to communicate with each other.

Perhaps I am dreaming all of you and everything that exists… and perhaps I am being fooled by a trickster demon… and perhaps I am living in a simulation… but if this is so – then the force that is behind this deception is a very powerful force indeed… and perhaps I will eventually reach the territory that this force resides in and have to re-define all that I know.  But until then, I will believe what may eventually be illuminated as delusion, and attempt to work together with the human race toward what ever is next.

In Lak’ech Ala K’in


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