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The brain is not alone

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women
Forfatter: Siri Hustvedt
Forlag: Sceptre
Siri Hustvedt goes for a feminist defense of softer metaphors in science.


"What seems lucid when it is articulated can actually be murky when it is closely examined."

Siri Hustvedt

In its fifth essay collection – the largest and perhaps most ambitious to date – Siri Hustvedt enters into the philosophical fundamental problem "what is consciousness?" with skin and hair. The dead metaphor is appropriate here because she attributes to the body a much greater meaning than its main opponents. Those she strongly disagrees with are represented by, among others, the popular science and popular writers Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. She thinks their overly confident titles like How the Mind Works og The selfish gene are both misleading and ideologically problematic.

Ironic title selection. If consciousness is a central theme of the essay collection, why is it called A Woman Looking At Men Looking At Women? I really wonder. Why did the publisher choose to use an essay of 15 pages as a title, when the most impressive and substantial contribution is a text of around 200 pages with a review of the research of consciousness from Descartes to the present day? Ironically, this reinforces Hustvedt's feminist point that women are not taken seriously enough in a debate characterized by so-called "hard" scientific research, for women are still associated with the "soft". I wish the publisher had published the feminist essays and the more scientifically oriented ones separately, and that they had used the title of the long essay – "The Delusions of Certainty" – in the latter collection. It could also have had the subtitle "Why the Brain is Not a Computer" and in this way attracted the attention of Pinker and Dawkins fans who, and this I have observed after many years in the industry, are rarely drawn to the shelf of feminism in the bookstore.

Computer Theory. There is a widespread belief that the brain works like a computer, which in the foreseeable future can be made smarter than man, only if it is given enough information. Hustvedt believes that "real biological systems are not rational agents that take inputs, compute logically and produce outputs" and that the popular computer metaphor inelegantly skips a philosophical problem that is still unresolved. This problem is called the body / mind problem and is about the fact that we do not yet know what consciousness is and thus do not know what is made of physical components, and what it possibly non-physical consists of. Nevertheless, the CTM theory of Mind) has gained a secure foothold in popular science, and the many voices, including Hustvedts, are not winning.

Hustvedt points to the placebo effect and false pregnancies to show how the body and brain interact.

Neuroscience. "I am because you are," says one of the protagonists of Hustvedt's novel What I Loved from 2003. Siri Hustvedt has long been concerned with how both relationships, body and language affect our brain, and in recent years has built up a solid knowledge in neuroscience that enables her to coat her theoretical framework from multiple angles. . In the present essay collection, she writes, among other things, about the infinitely complex interaction between mother and child, and uses this to explain how the interaction with the outside world literally shapes us: "We are body subjects in relation to other body subjects." She also points to placebo effects and false pregnancies, for example, to show how the body and brain interact in ways that do not fit into the CTM model.

Genetics. The author also draws on misconceptions about genes, and writes that it is difficult to define a gene as something unified and that the whole idea of ​​genes as innate codes (where the computer metaphor was left, given) is little scientific: "The idea that genes can directly code for complex structures has been one of the most remarkably persistent misconceptions in modern biology, ”says biologist Mary Jane West-Eberhard, quoted by Hustvedt.

A computer fits in with "hard" science: It is made of clean, hard and dry parts and not wet, soft and bacterially infected biological pulp.

One question that arises in this context is why it is so difficult to change people's beliefs about CTM and genes as innate codes when there are such heavy scientific objections. Hustvedt believes that neither alternative nor non-alternative facts are picked up solely on the basis of logical reasoning but also based on emotions.

Metaphors and symbolism. A reference throughout the essay collection is George Lakoff and Mark Johnson Metaphors We Live By. Hustvedt thinks it is difficult to think without metaphors, and that the metaphors we prefer are based on emotion. As I mentioned at the outset, "hard" and "soft" are a classic metaphorical structure for the masculine and the feminine. A computer fits in with the so-called hard science, because it is made of clean, hard and dry parts, not wet, soft and bacterially infected biological mass. The "hard" is often linked to the rational, and it is no news that the rational / irrational are also well-used metaphors for the male and female. When Hustvedt tries to understand the attraction to the hard and clean, she writes: "Maybe clean, hard boundaries have a nice, logical feeling and entangled interactions suggest something messier, maybe even something less rational."

So then it ends vi with an ironic twist (irony, by the way, is not so easy for a computer to pick up, just try Google Translate): Apparently in the service of rationality, Dawkins, Pinker & Co use symbols and metaphors that primarily serve as a maintenance of an ancient and irrational power structure. There are definitely more who should take a look at that feminism shelf.

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