Friday, April 05, 2013

Deeper than the sea

If you want a book to put in opposition to Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos, which we discussed a week or so ago, you could do no better that Gerald Edelman's Wider Than the Sky. Edelman is a Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist who has written widely on the physiological origins of consciousness. Wider Than the Sky is a short book, like Nagel's, and intended for the same popular audience. It is not, however, as easy a read, for the reason that doing real science takes more effort than does philosophizing off the top of one's head.

Edelman does not prove that consciousness can be reduced to Darwinian materialism -- it's too early for that -- but he offers a good case for not supposing otherwise.

But right now I want to consider his curious title: Wider Than the Sky. Where does it come from? What does it mean?

From an 1863 poem of Emily Dickinson:
The Brain--is wider than the Sky--
For--put them side by side--
The one the other will contain
With ease--and you--beside--

The Brain is deeper than the sea--
For--hold them--Blue to Blue--
The one the other will absorb--
As sponges--Buckets--do--

The Brain is just the weight of God--
For--Heft them--Pound for pound--
And they will differ--if they do--
As Syllable from Sound--
It is sometimes argued that we will never have a full scientific understanding of consciousness because the brain is only as complicated as the thing it is trying to understand, and with much more to do besides. That is to say, consciousness involves more of the brain's circuitry than the part of the brain that might contrive and contain a physiological description of consciousness. Like a sponge trying to mop up a spill more fulsome than the sponge.

But this misunderstands the nature of scientific understanding, as Edelman makes clear. We will never be able to predict the weather in every particular -- every gust and raindrop -- but we have a pretty good understanding of the physical principles that control the weather, and no reason to suppose that any gust or raindrop is not in principle reducible to laws of temperature, pressure, condensation, and so on.

The world and the brain contain each other, as Dickinson supposes. The brain evolved in the world to contain as much of the world as possible within the physical limitations of the organism. How it works is yet to be discovered, but I for one applaud President Obama's brain mapping initiative. The tools are ready. Theoretical structures are in place. The buckets and sponges wait to be filled.