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The Martian Inside Your Head

Years ago Reader's Digest published a series of hugely successful articles by J.D. Ratcliff, all beginning with "I am Joe's ____." Fill in the blank: heart, brain, pancreas, etc. The articles explained complicated body organs in simple terms for lay readers. The one on the heart began, "I’m certainly no beauty. I weigh 12 ounces, am red-brown in color, and have an unimpressive shape. I am the dedicated slave of —well, let’s call him Joe. Joe is 45, ruggedly good-looking, has a pretty wife, three children and an excellent job. Joe has made it."

Some time ago, for Journal of Consciousness Studies, Andy Clark--currently professor of Philosophy and Chair in Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh--wrote an article using J.D. Ratcliff's style and format. It was titled "I Am John's Brain."

As an aside, I note that Clark observes that our ability at language distorts our understanding of how the brain works. That is, we interpret its workings in terms of concepts we use in our lives. That same ability at symbolic representation insists on intellect as the only means of understanding the world. We interpret the workings of the world in terms of concepts we use everyday.  Just as, in Clark's essay,  "John" gets caught up in his symbols for his brain, so do we in our symbols for the world.

John misuses words to explain his mind, thereby misunderstanding it.  People use words as a prism for the world, and fail by arriving at conventional realities, however convenient. Still, the issue of misunderstanding also arises with those who espouse an unconventional, nondualist, perspective. Sadly, many writings on nonduality assume certain "metaphysical" words are the only and right words just because language can find no better ones.

Indeed, John's brain explains why people don't "get" nonduality. The left hemisphere, the seat of linguistic ability and intellect as well as the sense of the do-er, is relied upon in our modern lives more than the left hemisphere, comprised of emotion and intuition. In an experiment, when a split-brain patient's right brain is shown a command like WALK, he begins to walk to the door. When asked why he is leaving, his left brain interpreter has an answer for the researcher: To get a drink of water. (See my review of Michael Gazzaniga's The Mind's Past.) The right brain had no explanation for what it saw, while the left side provided it, however erroneously.  Words don't always provide proper answers, which is why nonduality can be "gotten" independent of a linguistic interpreter. (Intellectuals take note.)

Here are parts of Clark's interesting and original essay:

"I am John's brain. In the flesh, I am just a rather undistinguished looking grey/white mass of cells. My surface is heavily convoluted and I am possessed of a fairly differentiated internal structure. John and I are on rather close and intimate terms; indeed, sometimes it is hard to tell us apart. But at times, John takes this intimacy a little too far. When that happens, he gets very confused about my role and functioning.
He imagines that I organize and process information in ways which echo his own perspective on the world. In short, he thinks that his thoughts are, in a rather direct sense, my thoughts. There is some truth to this of course. But things are really rather more complicated than John suspects, as I shall try to show.

In the first place, John is congenitally blind to the bulk of my daily activities. At best, he catches occasional glimpses and distorted shadows of my real work. Generally speaking, these fleeting glimpses portray only the products of my vast subterranean activity, rather than the processes which give rise to them. Such products include the play of mental images or the steps in a logical train of thought or flow of ideas.

John's access to these products is, moreover, itself a pretty rough and ready affair. What filters into his conscious awareness is somewhat akin to what gets on to the screen display of a personal computer. In both cases, what is displayed is just a specially tailored summary of the results of certain episodes of internal activity: results for which the user has some particular use. Evolution, after all, would not waste time and money (search and energy) to display to John a faithful record of inner goings-on unless that could help John to hunt, survive and reproduce. John, as a result, is appraised of the bare minimum of knowledge about my inner activities. . . What John gets from me is thus rather like what a driver gets from an electronic dashboard display: information pertaining to those few inner and outer parameters to which the gross activity of the agent can make a useful difference.

John, however, begs to differ. . . . [Still,] there is no `driver' apart from me, his brain. But despite this undoubted fact, I insist that there is a dashboard display of sorts. The display consists of those select products of my activities which are able to play a role in those projects and decisions which the world at large ascribes to John-the-person (as opposed to those, like the maintenance of blood flow, ascribed not to John's decisions, but to John-the-biological-organism). . . . The fact that John has only limited access to my operations means, of course, that John can sometimes be unaware of the true causes of his own actions. In such cases, John is driven to create complex stories or narratives which try to make sense of his self-observed behaviours. This is a hard task, since the roots of much of that behaviour lie, I am proud to report, in those other activities of mine to which John has no conscious access. As a result, his stories are often wildly imaginative (that is to say, false) attempts to make sense of his own activities on the restricted basis of the `dashboard display' types of information.

And it gets worse. For John's reports, even of the favoured `dashboard display' products of my activity, are themselves filtered through the distorting lens of John's biased and limited vocabulary for reporting these facts to others. Thus John thinks (falsely) that introspection reveals the presence of entities he calls `beliefs', others he calls `desires', still others he calls `hopes' and so on and so on. John is even inclined (in more philosophical moments) to picture these putative inner entities as sharing the basic structure of the very sentences he would use to report such facts to others. He thinks he finds in himself the belief that Rome is pretty, and the hope that St. Louis is pretty. . . . John should beware of confusing the structure of the language he uses to report his beliefs with the structure of my own encodings. . . .

A further complex of misapprehensions centres on the question of the provenance of thoughts. John thinks of me as the point source of the intellectual products he identifies as his thoughts. But, to put it crudely, I do not have John's thoughts. John has John's thoughts and I am just one item in the array of physical events and processes which enable that thinking to occur. . . .

. . . so far I have allowed myself to speak as if I were a unified inner resource contributing to these interactive episodes. This is an illusion which the present literary device encourages and one which John seems to share. But once again, if truth be told, I am not one inner voice but many. I am so many inner voices, in fact, that the metaphor of the inner voice must itself mislead. For it surely suggests inner sub-agencies of some sophistication and perhaps possessed of a rudimentary kind of self-consciousness. In reality, I consist only of multiple mindless streams of highly parallel and often relatively independent computational processes. I am not a mass of little agents so much as a mass of non-agents, tuned and responsive to proprietary inputs and cleverly orchestrated by evolution so as to yield successful purposive behaviour in most daily settings. My single voice, then, is no more than a literary conceit.

At root, John's mistakes are all variations on a single theme. He thinks that I see the world as he does, that I parcel things up as he would, that I think the way he would report his thoughts. None of this is the case. I am not the inner echo of John's conceptualizations. Rather, I am their somewhat alien source. To see just how alien I can be, John need only reflect on some of the rather extraordinary and unexpected ways that damage to brains like me can affect the cognitive profiles of beings like John. Damage to me could, for example, result in the selective impairment of John's capacity to recall the names of small manipulable objects, yet leave unscathed his capacity to name larger-scale ones. . . . this facet of my internal organization is altogether alien to John — it respects needs, principles and opportunities of which John is blissfully unaware. Unfortunately, instead of trying to comprehend my modes of information storage in their own terms, John prefers simply to imagine that I organize my knowledge the way he, heavily influenced by the particular words in his language, organizes his. Thus he supposes that I store information in clusters which respect what he calls `concepts' — generally, names which figure in his linguistic classifications of worldly events, states and processes. Here, as usual, John is far too quick to identify my organization with his own perspective. . . . John's `concepts', it seems to me, are just like that: names for complexes of skills whose unity rests not on facts about me, but on facts about John's way of life.

John's tendency to hallucinate his own perspective on to me extends to his conception of my knowledge of the external world. John walks around and feels as if he commands a stable, 3D image of his immediate surroundings. John's feelings notwithstanding, I command no such thing. I register small regions of detail in rapid succession as I fixate first on this, and then on that aspect of the visual scene. . . . As a result of this trick, and others, John has such a fluent capacity to negotiate his local environment that he thinks he commands a constant inner vision of the detail of his surroundings. . . .

The sad fact, then, is that almost nothing about me is the way John imagines it to be. We remain strangers despite our intimacy (or perhaps because of it). John's language, introspections, and over-simplistic physicalism incline him to identify my organization too closely with his own limited perspective. He is thus blind to my fragmentary, opportunistic and generally alien nature. He forgets that I am in large part a survival- oriented device which greatly pre-dates the emergence of linguistic abilities, and that my role in promoting conscious and linguaform cognition is just a recent sideline. . . . he often mistakes the forms and conventions of that vehicle for the structure of thought itself.

. . . . John really knows very little about me. Think of me as the Martian in John's head."

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