Sunday, 13 May 2018

Bergson's Mind-Energy (Phrenology for Philosophers)

You will likely have often seen areas of the brain circled as the probable focal points of consciousness, the hippocampus, Broca’s etc. It’s as though the bumps of phrenology had migrated inwardly – gone to Broca’s, on my way back already.

In Matter and Memory (1896) Bergson offered his close analysis of the difference between Idealism and Realism going by the standard version of those philosophies. In 1904 in a paper entitled Brain and Thought: A Philosophical Illusion (from Mind-Energy) he again goes into the topic. I found it more accessible but still quite idiosyncratic. What the contemporary philosopher would refer to as the neural correlates of consciousness he describes thus:

The idea that there is an equivalence between a psychic state and its corresponding cerebral state is widely accepted in modern philosophy. Philosophers have discussed the causes and the significance of this equivalence rather than the equivalence itself. By some, it has been held that the cerebral state is reduplicated in certain cases by a psychical phosphorescence which illumines its outline. By others, it is supposed that the cerebral state and the psychic state form respectively two series of phenomena which correspond point to point, without it being necessary to attribute to the cerebral series the creation of the psychic. All, however, agree in admitting an equivalence or, as it is more usual to say, a parallelism of the two series. In order to express the idea, I will formulate it as a thesis: "Given a cerebral state, there will ensue a definite psychic state." Or it may be stated thus: "A super human intelligence, watching the dance of the atoms of which the human brain consists and possessing the psycho-physiological key, would be able to read, in the working of the brain, all that is occurring in the corresponding consciousness." Or, finally, it may be put in this way: "Consciousness tells no more than what is going on in the brain; it only tells it in a different language."

You will recall the phosphorescence remark of Gilbert Ryle in The Concept of Mind. Was this its origin? Anyway Bergson places this way of thinking about consciousness in the proto-idealism of Descartes. Let me try to give a feel of the originality of his treatment of idealism which he describes thus:

 For the idealist, there is nothing in reality over and above what appears to his consciousness or to consciousness in general. It would be absurd to speak of a property of matter which could not be represented in idea. 

In his paper he contrasts this with the usual pattern of realism but to avoid confusing myself I will simply focus on his analysis of idealism. He holds that after the initial plausible statement of that position there is then a switch over to realism by an intellectual sleight of hand which is not noticed by the thinker. (The realist does the same switch towards idealism.)

In the case of Idealism the brain is an element in the world and it must also represent the world. The part then is equivalent to the whole. That’s bad enough but when we focus on the parallel process in the brain we get into a profound muddle:

That is to say, the thesis is intelligible only because, by an unconscious trick of intellectual conjuring, we pass instantly from realism to idealism and from idealism to realism, showing ourselves in the one at the very moment when we are going to be caught in the act of self-contradiction in the other. The trick, moreover, is quite natural; we are, in this case, born conjurors, because the problem we are concerned with, the psycho-physiological problem of the relation of brain and thought, itself suggests by its very terms the two points of view of realism and idealism,— the term "brain" making us think of a thing, the term "thought" of an idea. By the very wording of the question is prepared the double meaning which vitiates the answer.

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