Thursday, 23 May 2013

Lovelock, Noe and Stapledon walk into a bar

James Lovelock, Alva Noe and Olaf Stapledon walk into a bar.
'We're all connected,' says Lovelock, the scientist and thinker.
'We are not our brains,' says Noe the philosopher.
'How do you know,' asks Stapledon the science fiction writer and philosopher, 'that we're not just connected brains?'

No, this is not a pitch for an obscure Big Bang Theory spin-off series. It represents some of the threads of thought I'm attempting to grapple with in the amorphous monster that my thesis is threatening to become. Yesterday I attempted to gather my thoughts about how Lovelock's Gaia Theory and my deep curiosity about neuroscience and its place in contemporary western culture link together. Into my head popped Stapledon's vision of the 'fourth men' from his novel Last and First Men.

This species of posthuman are indeed their brains, and nothing but their brains. Stapledon describes them as living in “a large circular brain turret…divided with many partitions, radiating from a central space, and covered everywhere with pigeon holes.”.  However, they are doomed to extinction because despite their incredible intelligence, their genius, and their telepathic communication, the superbrains are helpless. They cannot move and so are reliant on the more able bodied ‘third men’ to operate the complex machinery that keeps them alive.

Stapledon’s fictional example is an extreme one that takes the idea of ‘we are our brains’ to the point of ridiculousness, yet it also illustrates the illogicality of the assertion that humans are our brains. There are amazing discoveries being made in neuroscience, discoveries that can improve the quality of life for people with neurological diseases, people with spinal cord injuries, people who have lost limbs. I agree that our incredibly complex human brains can reveal much about what makes humans tick. Neuroscience is opening up to us more about who we are, and why we are. But I would argue that neuroscience can only ever be one small part of the story of human life on earth. It is one small window into humanity but can never provide a definitive answer about what it is to be a human because we are more than our brains.

Lovelock’s Gaia Theory gives me a way in to explore this argument - that we are not our brains - because he provides the ‘big picture’ about humans as an organism not merely living on the Earth but intimately connected to it through our flesh, our blood, our cells, from the micro organisms that live in our gut to the manner in which our bodies expel waste products. It is through Lovelock’s work that I can step back and understand that we are not just our brains. If we were we might well evolve into giant posthuman blobs of grey matter sitting in a pen like a factory-farmed animal. Even worse, we may become like the fourth men who, as Stapledon describes, "had a growing sense that though in a manner they knew almost everything, they really knew nothing."

And that would be no fun at all.