The Uncaused Cause: From Self to Neuroself, Part 4


Continued from Part 3

The nature of neuroapocalypse will be not melodramatic but empirical. The self will die by living autopsy, and under antispetic conditions. On the steel examination table science will fail to find its beating heart, pronounce it dead, and move on to a better case.

The self is defined by its capacity to own.   But ownership is not a property of the natural world.  In physics there is no force of ownership, or particle, or field.  You have never seen the ownership equation, because there isn’t one.  The formulae that build a house, or rocketship, or brain, are known completely and without it.  There is nothing left over in the world that science needs the concept of ownership to explain.

This point may seem ridiculous – one may as well note with alarm that we lack a unified theory of elves.  But it is not – not, at least, in an age in which we wish to map our minds to matter.  It must be made if we are to call a halt to the doomed and absurd endeavor to find the Enlightenment self inside the brain.

The absence of a physical definition of ownership was of course utterly unproblematic before the age of neuroscience; nobody asked that owning selves have brains.  But now has come upon the neurocredulists the urge to find the neural roots of all psychology.  And so the flaw will make its mark.

We hardly realize it today, but words we now associate with science – force, charge, mass, velocity – were once, like “self,” merely English words.  It was an accomplishment of the first order for Newton, for example, to give force units, and to declare F=ma – that force is mass times acceleration.  For what he had to do was map a linguistic term onto mathematics and the world.  He had to create a map.

We are all Newton now. The relationship of mind to brain must be a map.  We must superimpose one upon the other, as Google Earth mapped streets upon terrain, and names upon the street.  We must layer.  But as with any mapping effort, such layering takes by definition common ground.

To map two things onto one another, we must map kind on kind.  French maps onto English because both share words; this is how French-English dictionaries are even possible.  To map states onto America, or France onto Europe, all must share a common property called land.  The body is the same.  Food goes in stomachs, and blood runs through veins, electrolytes move through kidneys, and air moves about in lungs, only because of something so blisteringly obvious we hardly notice it: they are made of common stuff – atoms, molecules, material.

Following this simple and unbreakable precedent, if we are to map our on brains, we must find some touchpoint of common connection.  If it is not – as clearly it is not – ownership, it must be something else.  And since it is the self which visits the brain, and must adapt to its customs, it must be some aspect of modern science that is the link.  The ownership that defines the self must be translated into some physical force or feature.

Let us choose the least specific feature shared by science and metaphysics.  This gives us the most latitude, which means that if it fails, all else will too.   The feature that links ownership to science is the cause.   That is, let us translate the psychological word “own” into the physical word “cause.”

Let us say that to own is just to cause.

To own one’s thought is to cause one’s thought; to own one’s action is to cause one’s action. This seems, at first glance, rather close to the self’s meaning, albeit happily in physics’ terms.  In our courtrooms, to find a man owns his guilt is to find he caused his crime.  In our economy, to find a storekeeper owns her pay is to find she caused her goods and services.  In our media, to say a source owns his quote is to find he caused his speech. To a very close approximation – for translation is never perfect – ownership is causality. And thus, to prepare to find the self inside the brain, we must say this:

The self is the thing that causes.

One is reminded, hearing this, of the old philosophical definition that to be is to do, and that action is what defines the mand.  And just as quickly one remembers rivals who turn this upside down, and say that to do is to be.  Let us leave aside that either formulation is the same, for causes are themselves effects of prior causes, so that all in nature is both cause and effect, which is to say, future and past. The point, for now, is that this formulation is quite close to what we mean when we say self, and yet has paved the way for mapping psychology to science.

Let us then simply take the final step, and complete the translation.  If the self is not merely the thing that owns, but the thing that owns itself, then in science the self is not merely the thing that causes. It is the thing that causes itself. Or put succinctly:

The self is an uncaused cause.

For all who love philosophy and logic, and all who believe in God – which is to say, for atheists and believers, and mere agnostics too – this is disaster.

If there is one thing in all of science that does not exist……. No, we can say more than this: if there is one thing that science in its very bones was built to eliminate, it was the uncaused cause.

The uncaused cause is not merely a small hiccup to modern science, something to put aside and clean up later.  It is an emergency.  It is verboten.  It is definitive proof, out of the gate, that something is fundamentally wrong with a theory.

For a cause is, at the very lease, a motion – a change, a movement; things that are not moved or changed have felt no cause.  But a movement that springs from nothing, creatio ex nihilo, violates the First Law of Thermodynamics.

The first law, famously, states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed.  It must, in any given system, be conserved.  In short, every form of energy – every cause of motion – must come from some prior energy.  Something never comes from nothing.  Energy – causality – cannot simply appear.

Thus to find that the very essence of the self – that it owns itself – is incompatible with modern science is to throw the whole neurocredulist program into monumental doubt.

For those partial to straws, there are perhaps a few to grasp at.  New Age acolytes of modern physics may cite the Big Bang as proof that something indeed can come from nothing, or claim that the zero state energy of the universe holds promise that the First Law has been misunderstood.

But we are not here interested in unwaged scientific revolutions.  We are interested in modern neuroscience as it is.  And in modern neuroscience, as in all of science, the first law of thermodynamics reigns supreme.  As does the second one to boot – the one that says chaos increases inexorably, and perpetual motion is a dream.  The self violates that one as well, as would of course any uncaused causes. Causality would pour out of it without pause.

No, like some sociopath loose upon Manhattan, the self runs roughshod over the laws of physics.  But science would have its city orderly and pretty, the tourists safe, the citizens satisfied.  There beckons a solution.

And euthenasia is quite simple.  And it is martial.  It will be ruthless.  It will be clean.

Continue to Part 5

One thought on “The Uncaused Cause: From Self to Neuroself, Part 4

  1. intense and graceful. though, im lost on how you translated the self causing itself to thus being the uncaused cause. not sure how that translates. doesnt that then shed a light of the self being obsolete?

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About Peter Freed, M.D.

I am a psychiatrist (psychopharmacology and psychotherapy) specializing in the so-called "personality disorders," particularly narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. I was a Fellow and then an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia from 2004- 2011. I am currently in private practice in NYC.