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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

David Brooks, "Beyond the Brain": The Brain Is Not the Mind

Egbert: "Was I in here last night, and did I spend a 20 dollar bill?"
Joe the Bartender: "Yeah!"
Egbert: "Oh, boy, is that a load off my mind. I thought I'd lost it!"


- W.C. Fields as Egbert Sousé, "Sousé – accent grave over the 'e'!", in "The Bank Dick," 1940


His mind troubled by a host of scandals, including revelations concerning mind mapping efforts by the NSA (see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/07/nsa-prism-records-surveillance-questions), President Obama set off on a globetrotting trip intended to set his mind at ease. Unfortunately, Obama was soon reminded by Putin that the two world leaders are not of the same mind regarding Syria (see: http://news.yahoo.com/russias-putin-says-disagrees-obama-syria-200057452.html). I wonder if Obama remembered his "open microphone" gaffe, during which the US president mindlessly asked Putin to bear in mind that he would have more "flexibility" after the election (see: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/26/us-nuclear-summit-obama-medvedev-idUSBRE82P0JI20120326). Obviously, the two remain minds apart.

Meanwhile, as Obama heads off for Tanzania, which has been involved in a lengthy dispute with the US over human trafficking (see: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-06-09/opinions/39856653_1_human-trafficking-tanzania-president-obama), those of us with enquiring minds, or even half a mind, wonder who is now minding the store in Washington.

Me? Mindful of this mess, I opened a bottle of Kahlua and again watched "Blade Runner." Rachael was an intelligent "replicant," with presence of mind, but did she actually possess a mind?

My mindset after last night's mind bender? I don't dwell on matters involving the subconscious mind.

Am I engaging in mind games this morning? Hardly. In his latest mind-expanding New York Times op-ed entitled "Beyond the Brain" (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/18/opinion/brooks-beyond-the-brain.html?_r=0), David Brooks does not take the time to explain to us the meaning of "mind," but adamantly informs us - twice - that "the brain is not the mind." Brooks writes:

"At the lowbrow level, there are the conference circuit neuro-mappers. These are people who take pretty brain-scan images and claim they can use them to predict what product somebody will buy, what party they will vote for, whether they are lying or not or whether a criminal should be held responsible for his crime.

At the highbrow end, there are scholars and theorists that some have called the 'nothing buttists.' Human beings are nothing but neurons, they assert. Once we understand the brain well enough, we will be able to understand behavior.

. . . .

These two forms of extremism are refuted by the same reality. The brain is not the mind.

. . . .

Right now we are compelled to rely on different disciplines to try to understand behavior on multiple levels, with inherent tensions between them. Some people want to reduce that ambiguity by making one discipline all-explaining. They want to eliminate the confusing ambiguity of human freedom by reducing everything to material determinism.

But that is the form of intellectual utopianism that always leads to error. An important task these days is to harvest the exciting gains made by science and data while understanding the limits of science and data. The next time somebody tells you what a brain scan says, be a little skeptical. The brain is not the mind."

Yes, as terror, cruelty, greed and poverty swirl around us, we should continue to marvel at the sublime human mind.

And if we have a mind, do we have a soul? Truly, a soul-searching issue . . .

Obviously, I woke up on the wrong side of bed (no, this time not on the floor).

Never mind. 

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