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  • Field notes
  • Erik Parens, Senior Research Scholar

Speaking in different registers.

This past fall I was in Heidelberg at a wonderful conference sponsored by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. One of the meeting's aims was to bring together neuroscientists, sociologists, philosophers, and others to talk about the ethical and social meanings of advances in neuroscience. The organizers not only brought together people from different disciplines, but people from the same disciplines who speak about the same facts in what we might call different "registers."

One of the neuroscientists made critical remarks about what he took to be his colleagues' extravagant claims regarding what neuroscience has already discovered about consciousness. He was careful to indicate that he was not suggesting that neuroscience could not offer profound insights into consciousness. He said he was, after all, a "materialist." He certainly didn't imagine that consciousness arose out of some nonmaterial stuff that was, in principle, beyond the ken of natural science. But he did want to emphasize that, as he said, "we are more than our brains."

Another neuroscientist, whose research explores the biological processes that give rise to consciousness, said in another session, with equal emphasis, that "we are nothing but our brains."

Now neither of those neuroscientists believes that consciousness emerges from somewhere other than our brains. Neither believes in a God that mysteriously inserts nonphysical souls into developing embryos. Neither thinks we need to appeal to a nonmaterial substance to explain the emergence of consciousness. They're both materialists. Yet the registers in which they speak—"we are more than our brains" versus "we are nothing but our brains"—are different.

The first neuroscientist emphasizes the fabulous complexity of the processes that give rise to consciousness. He emphasizes the extent to which the processes inside brains are shaped by processes outside them, and in particular by social processes. He worries that, in the future, we could use science to justify why the disenfranchised are disenfranchised, as we have in the past. And he seems to worry that the more we learn about the brain, the less we will imagine ourselves able to make choices to achieve social progress. Put positively, in saying that we are "more than" our brains, I took him to be emphasizing the awesomeness of the fact that experience could emerge from matter.

The second neuroscientist seems to want to celebrate the awesomeness of our capacity to use "mechanistic" approaches to gain insight into the nature of consciousness. He appreciates better than anyone the complexity of those mechanisms, but he wants to emphasize the respect in which science can demystify them. He has no patience for accounts that seem to emphasize the mysteriousness of the emergence of consciousness. Indeed, he seems even to take some pleasure in debunking such talk, which seemed to have for him a vaguely "religious" ring to it. Perhaps it was for him a matter of intellectual courage to say that we are "nothing but" our brains.

But I am speculating. Whatever the reasons those neuroscientists would give for speaking in such different registers, one of the myriad thus-far-unanswered questions regarding human minds is, Why do different registers feel so right to different minds? [End Page c2]



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