Contemplation: Unknown Unkowns (pt. 2): Our Unknown Minds

“The disease that calls into question our connection to reality may itself be an illusion.” ~Errol Morris

“Our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable . . . It is pointless to add that experience itself has found itself increasingly circumscribed.” ~ André Breton

“In the present circumstances, in the middle of so many tragic events, one may also wonder if science deserves to be the object of a cult. The most admirable creations of the human mind, contrary to all expectations, have had as their main effect destruction and massacre; with a bit of pessimism, one may curse advances in knowledge and fear that someday some discovery might have as a consequence the destruction of mankind . . .” ~Joseph Babinski

I continue to follow in my blogging a parallel posting to Mr. Errol Morris’ five-part Op-Ed this week “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is” (here pt. 1 and here pt. 2).  There is something fun in this parallel writing.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s post I enjoy Mr. Morris’s pieces mostly because of their ability to spark further thought and contemplation, and as such I feel that following along with his pieces this week allows for me a better opportunity to hash out ideas of my own.

In part two Mr. Morris deviates some from the from his opening piece to look instead at the origins of the term “anosognosia.”  It was coined by the Polish neurologist Joseph Babinski to describe the circumstances where a patients displays apparent unawareness of their conditions of paralysis.  This term has since been attributed further to a patients unawareness of any condition that they may be prone too.  Mr. Morris continues onward to examine the late 19th to early 20th century phenomena of hysteria (a matter investigated by Babinski as well as his mentor Jean-Martin Charcot).

What Mr. Morris seems to be pushing toward is a state of question about the human mind and just how it is able to know itself as well as any ailments that might afflict it.  This seems to be at the core of the studies of psychology and psychiatry.  I think Mr. Morris poses a very relevant questions in the beginning of his piece by proposing that any ailment of the mind that results in an inaccurate portrayal of reality may itself be illusory.  it become compounding levels of illusion.

The human brain is a startlingly advanced and amazing piece of anatomical function.  On one hand our large primate brain has allowed us to develop language, technology, philosophy, etc.  It is capable of consciousness and awareness of the life it is encased in.  However, even in our most advanced studies of neurology and psychiatry, the brain is incapable of fully understanding itself.  Certainly with advancements in science and technology we have a better idea about how the brain works than we did back in the days of Babinski and Charcot, but even so there is much that we still do not understand.

Perhaps the core of the problem lies in that it is our brains that form for us a picture of what we know to be reality.  In introspection the brain may be unable to discern the reality of its own inner workings.  As such we move into the realm of the philosophy of mind.  What is the mind?  Is it just a manifestation of the human brain that creates a sense of self and being, a conscious entity that interprets the surrounding world?  Is the mind merely an organic function of neurotransmitters conveying electrical signals between neurons?  or is it something else?  Is it a vast combination of not just the purely biological chemical actions but all the amassed experience, observation, and perception of the world, to form something that we can classify as reality?

The brain might present to itself the greatest, and most frustrating, unknown unknown, in contemplation of the mind.  While there may be something reassuring in the initial consideration that we are all just biological function as a result of various chemicals, when we take a closer consideration I think that many of us encounter a kind of existential dread in the thought that our mind, and hence our very self, is nothing other than electrical signals. We, our minds themselves, desire to be more than simple physical function.  At the core this is why body-mind dualism has long be a subject of philosophical thought.

Human history seems to be built on the foundation of “knowing the world.”  Early humans began to see the world around them and thus they developed explanations for why such things were.  Early philosophers like Plato and Aristotle took knowing further, contemplating there very meaning and being of things.  Sciences developed to test hypothesise on why things happen, while at the same time world religions develop divine explanations of existence.  All of this moves forward to our current world, a decade into the 21st century.  We are prone to make the claim, with some degree of accuracy, that we know more now than our ancient ancestors did.  This is a part truth only, for much of what we know now was very surely a bunch of unknown unknowns to the peoples of history.  If this is true then I think we need to ask ourselves, “what unknown unknowns are there still yet to be discovered?”  In two thousand years time will humans (if they are any left) look back at the cusp of the 21st century and snicker at how little those primitives knew?  I’d say that is quite likely.

But there is more.  The ancient people were not unaware that they existed.  They clearly had a sense of consciousness and must have wondered about the nature of reality.  Has there perceptions of reality affected our own over the course of centuries?  Undoubtedly.  Knowledge appears to build upon previous knowledge.  We owe our reality as much to the present as to the past.  And we shape future perceptions of the reality in our actions and thoughts here and now.

But what about the potential of falseness?  What of diseased minds that misconstrue reality?  I have for sometime thought that this seems to be an underlying emphasis and reliance of or psychological studies.  Certainly much of psychology and psychiatry is well-intentioned in developing a greater understanding of the human brain and easing the suffering of those who exhibit mental ailments.  But the question I raise is in regards to what constitutes and ailment of the mind?  Is it physiological; due to some imbalance of chemicals or such?  Or is it deeper, something that extends beyond the physicality of the brain into the metaphysical realm of the mind?  And can any of us, with any certainty, say that our reality is the absolute and true reality.  Near the end of his life Babinski questioned whether our reliance on the sciences was really all that well founded, for certainly results have many times over been used for ills the world. But extend this thought to the study of the brain itself and I am forced to wonder if, while with the intention of causing aid and betterment, we may not have set a high precedent for what is natural and is a mind in a working order of reality.

We know our owns minds, if not with perfection, then at least with an intimacy that is our alone.  consensus between like thoughts and ideas is what has built the foundation of our knowledge of the world and reality.  Because only we know our minds with intimacy, we then must rely on trusting the expressed thoughts of others.  This has worked relatively well throughout history (I say “relatively” because it is easy to claim that all human conflict has been a result of a lack of consensus and trust between minds).  However, we are not hiveminds, even with all of our ability to communicate and share ideas, it ultimately comes down to us to trust others and our own world to be real and share our understanding.  If an ailment of the mind shifts our perspective of reality, we may very well become incapable of trusting other minds, or for that matter our own.  What then becomes of reality?

I know that I have a brain up in my skull because I have been told, that anatomically, that is where brains reside.  I have further been told, and believe, that my brain is responsible for regulating my bodily functions; it keeps me breathing, makes my heart beat, causes sensation, etc.  Beyond that it is also what gives me thoughts, memories, emotions, and the like.  I know all this because I have been told it and trust it but also because, as I am writing these words, I truly know that there are thoughts going on in my head.  This tells me that there is at least something going on in here.  As for the rest of the world and human population, I suppose I have to take it as a matter of faith that there are actually things going on.  Perhaps this is not so much an “unknown unknown” situation as it is an “uncertain unknown.”  I know that there are things that I might not know, but I don’t know with any certainty what I might not know.

I’ll tell you, that one thing I don’t know about all of these thoughts is whether I find them liberating and comforting, or extremely disconcerting.  The mind, thinking of itself, can be a vicious beast.  Perhaps I will have further thoughts as Mr. Morris’ pieces continue to unfold.

Until then.

~ by Nathaniel on June 22, 2010.

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