The Mental Life of Brains
Brains are alive, part of a living organism
Biology can tell us a great deal about how brains work qua living tissue: their metabolism, their chemistry, how they react to substances that penetrate the blood/brain barrier, the effect of hormones released by various parts of the brain on the rest of the organism, etc..
But what can biology tell us is about what’s it like to be a brain, to have a brain, to feel, think, and want with a brain? Can it also tell us something about consciousness?
Step by step since the 19th century biologists and physiologists have managed to reverse engineer all kinds of mental functions (perception, language, memory, etc.) by localizing them in the brain and relating cognition in human and non-human animals. As Darwin argued: “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind” (Darwin The Descent of Man 1871, 106). The theory of evolution established a continuum between animals and humans, not only with respect to their bodies, but also their minds: instincts, skills, and higher forms of cognition were shown to be adapted, evolved, and to come in degrees: “the activities of organisms other than our own, when analogous to those activities of our own which we know to be accompanied by certain mental states, are in them accompanied by analogous mental states.” (Romanes Animal Intelligence 1882, 4-5)
If humans and animals have similar brain structures, we’d expect similar mental functions as well. When we yell “fetch”, we expect the dog not just to hear the word, but also to understand it and to retrieve the ball we’ve thrown. This requires the brain to do something with the sound, to process it in a certain way, which we would expect to involve some form of consciousness.
Some theories point out that having a bigger, better brain has evolutionary advantages, that the things a brain allows us to do, such as speech and pattern matching, have real-world applications in detecting danger or prey and allowing for better coordination while hunting.
However, is that all?
Is the mental life of brains exhausted in these straightforward effects and is everything else just a side-show?
Culture, art, science, politics, etc. all mere by-effects of a runaway evolutionary feedback loop?
Does consciousness have no purpose or meaning beyond helping us pick among the fighting, fleeing, feeding, and the fourth “f”?
Is the whole history of humanity after the agricultural revolution one gigantic, baroque epicycle?
Or is there more to be said about the mental life of brains?
Are brains more than a biological mechanism to keep us alive more efficiently?
Are we more than hyper-efficient animals?