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I believe that understanding the world is a lot like seeing the world, and the visual illusions to which the eye is prone provide exquisite metaphors for the cognitive illusions to which the mind is prone. When you first look at a drawing such as Escher’s Relativity, everything seems fine. But as you inspect it you suddenly realize that what you’re seeing is impossible—each section of the canvas is coherent but all these possible parts add up to an impossible whole. Escher’s work exposes the masterful fraud that our brains perpetrate upon us—the neural magic show that we call reality. Daniel Gilbert, Psychologist, Harvard University © 2007 The M.C. Escher Company-Holland.
Since its inception in the early 20th century, neuroscience has succeeded in becoming intimate with the brain. Scientists have reduced our sensations to a set of discrete circuits. They have imaged our cortex as it thinks about itself, and calculated the shape of ion channels, which are machined to subatomic specifications.
And yet, despite this vast material knowledge, we remain strangely ignorant of what our matter creates. We know the synapse, but don’t know ourselves. In fact, the logic of reductionism implies that our self-consciousness is really an elaborate illusion, an epiphenomenon generated by some electrical shudder in the frontal cortex. There is no ghost in the machine; there is only the vibration of the machinery. Your head contains 100 billion electrical cells, but not one of them is you, or knows or cares about you. In fact, you don’t even exist. The brain is nothing but an infinite regress of matter, reducible to the callous laws of physics.
The problem with this method is that it denies the very mystery it needs to solve. Neuroscience excels at unraveling the mind from the bottom up. But our self-consciousness seems to require a top-down approach. As the novelist Richard Powers wrote, “If we knew the world only through synapses, how could we know the synapse?” The paradox of neuroscience is that its astonishing progress has exposed the limitations of its paradigm, as reductionism has failed to solve our emergent mind. Much of our experiences remain outside its range.
This world of human experience is the world of the arts. The novelist and the painter and the poet embrace those ephemeral aspects of the mind that cannot be reduced, or dissected, or translated into the activity of an acronym. They strive to capture life as it’s lived. As Virginia Woolf put it, the task of the novelist is to “examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day…[tracing] the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.” She tried to describe the mind from the inside.
Neuroscience has yet to capture this first-person perspective. Its reductionist approach has no place for the “I” at the center of everything. It struggles with the question of qualia. Artists like Woolf, however, have been studying such emergent phenomena for centuries, and have amassed a large body of knowledge about such mysterious aspects of the mind. They have constructed elegant models of human consciousness that manage to express the texture of our experience, distilling the details of real life into prose and plot. That’s why their novels have endured: because they feel true. And they feel true because they capture a layer of reality that reductionism cannot.
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