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Brain research does not meet man as a thinking being

I Am Not a Brain
Forfatter: Markus Gabriel
Forlag: Polity Press (USA/Storbritannia)
Modern brain research today has an unquestionable guiding star role in recent science and research policy. Markus Gabriel calls into question this status and position, and shows that nothing less than our freedom is at stake.


The question of the relationship between the mind and the brain – the soul-body problem – can be traced back to Descartes in modern times, and actually goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. The theme of various graduates has at the same time been renewed topicality, linked to both the development of new technology and new ideologies sprung from advances in the natural sciences.

Modern brain research has been given a striking leadership role, as honors, as exemplary activity and as a metaphysical basis for seemingly all other science discourse. This is problematic and has serious consequences, which I will discuss in an ideology-critical perspective by addressing the main ideas of the German philosopher Gabriel's current book.

Marcus Gabriel released in the original 2017 I'm not a brain in English under the title I Am Not a Brain. The book is firmly rooted in a critical philosophy of consciousness (philosophy of consciousness). The title gives us a taste of an identity problem that is central to the book, but which is too subtle to delve into here. The Philosophy Book is a lot about what it means to be something else. Am I and my brain one and the same? Is the mind the brain? Is consciousness a computer program? Such questions can be asked endlessly, and in the book everyone is answered with a no. Neither the self, the consciousness, the mind nor the self are identical to anything other than themselves – something that is both blurred and misunderstood by the so-called neuro-reductionists, according to Gabriel.

Neuro-reductionism preaches that the self is the brain. Gabriel thinks the self is not identical to the brain, and thus linked to human freedom.

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Decades of the brain. Gabriel critically criticizes various issues of "brain-reductionism". Neuro-reductionism with the accompanying ideology of neurophysicism, preaches that the self is the brain. Consequently, true knowledge and deep understanding of the self, consciousness, will, and mind can only be accessed through the study of the brain via brain research primarily paired with evolutionary biology. Gabriel's view is of course the opposite – the self is not the brain. And it has the important consequence that we are free beings, which means that the self cannot be drawn from a single theory or embraced by an ideology. Gabriel's crusade against neuro-fetishism is at the same time a march of protest in the name of freedom.

Initially, Gabriel questions the status and position of brain research in recent science and philosophy of mind, and uses most of the book to show why this optimistic exaltation is both undeserved and wrongly founded. Brain research's ideological hegemony got a strong start with Georg Bush senior's declaration of "the decade of the brain" at the end of the 1980 years, and the terms and resources of brain research then dramatically improved. Gabriel's criticism is not only philosophical, it is directly political. Errors in thinking about the brain and ideologically based bigotry about the glorious future of research are closely linked to political power interests – it legitimizes a prevailing regime where the exaltation (and isolation) of the brain has a prominent and necessary place.

But why is it important to identify the self and the mind with the brain? Because it is a colonization project, which eliminates its competitors by demanding hegemony. Therefore, the claims of totality and greatness are exaggerated, but have a function anyway: to remove any doubt, in the form of alternative theories and ideas, that the exploration of the brain provides the answer to all our questions. The most important bulwark against neuro-fetishism is, according to Gabriel, the mind-philosophical thinking in neo-existentialist taping with a dash of Kantian enlightenment philosophy at the bottom. And freedom is at stake!

It takes time to digest Gabriel's meaningful book, but still the book is strangely readable, the heavy topic taken into consideration.

Retro positivism criticism. A basic point of Gabriel is that brain research cannot account for so-called mind-dependent factors. It only relates to sizes that are mind-independent, and thus objectivizable. Consequently, human subjectivity is at stake. For the point of departure of the mind-philosophical thinking are precisely mind-dependent conditions, partly because the human mind precisely er the relation to one's own relationship – that is, to one's own consciousness and perception – and thus is wholly dependent on the mind. The mindset is fundamentally about self-understanding – the self's relationship to itself. The brain, on the other hand – for example as an information machine – can neither be attributed to self nor self-understanding, and brain research is almost by definition referred to as being about something other than man as the thinking being.

With his ideology-critical touch, Gabriel's book is in many ways reminiscent of the criticism of positivism in Germany and Norway in the 1960 and 70 years. The debate was much about the alleged tendency of the natural sciences to dominate the social sciences, with colonizing demands on science and objectivity. According to Gabriel, we find similar trends today in both neurological brain research and psychology, and especially in areas that are informed and inspired by neuroscience, such as artificial intelligence research, Computer Science, and certain types of philosophy of consciousness.

Popular cultural metaphors. Gabriel visits a lot I Am Not a Brain, which takes time to digest. Yet it is strangely readable, its heavy theme taken into account. Much of this is probably due to the pervasive style of the text. In addition to citing countless examples, the author presents contemporary metaphors drawn from popular culture. Especially the many movie and series examples from The Matrix, Strange Days, Fargo, Lucy og Death in Venice is illustrative – although the author, for his own domestic use, sometimes takes great liberties in his interpretations of the film's themes. All of the thought experiments also help to give Gabriel's meaningful book increased depth and imaginative excitement.

Brain research only relates to sizes that are mind-independent, and thus objectively observable. Consequently, the human subjectivit-ethene is at stake. 

The cover image – a bicycle placed on his head – is a very illustrative example of the book's main points. To move using a bicycle, you need both the bike and the body. To ride a bike you also need a gift of grace – to be able to ride a bike. But the activity of cycling is not identical to any of its material requirements. For example, wanting to go somewhere (carrying your body) is a non-reducible element in addition to cycling itself. Cycling can in no way be reduced to pedaling, braking and gearing. Cycling as a holistic phenomenon is thus incomprehensible to the reductionist brain scientist. The brain scientist must be content to remain at rest with the bicycle standing in an upside-down position in the backyard, with a constant need for repairs and limited by the manipulable, material conditions.

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Sigurd Ohrem
Sigurd Ohrem
Ohrem is a writer for Ny Tid.

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