Dual to the Death: From Self to Neuroself, Part 6


Continued from Part 5

Do not believe the rumors.  It’s not a physical world.  Not merely, not only.  Material is a lot of it, but isn’t all of it; matter does not have the right of way, for it does not have all the facts.  It cannot tell the truth, or at least, not the whole.  Matter must stand by meaning to be corrected.

But even that correction will not be correct.  For to restore the Idea to its proper place, with full equality to Matter, is merely to make a larger error. The two of them, as a dichotomy and dualism, are as wrong as either one alone.  The universe contains both of them, but as a single, united thing. But what is this thing?

Before we can answer this question – in a word, the answer is light – we must understand that this division to which we have grown so accustomed, between Self and Brain, Mind and Matter, is not built into the structure of the universe.  It is a conceptual product – they are bastard children born of a single mother named Enlightenment to two fathers, Reason and Sense.

Reason fathered consciousness, sensation fathered brain.  But then in some strange alchemy that must have unfolded in the dark, those zygotes fused in to some monstrous hybrid of identical and fraternal, and were born conjoined twins. They can no more break free of one another than Yin from Yang.  They share a circulation.  To believe one can live without the other is to play the fool.

They were born in 1620.

In the sensual apocalypse of Bacon’s New Organon the Enlightenment had its birth announcement.  Al knowledge was divided into two camps – rational and empirical.  In time the self emerged from ration, the brain from empiricism.  This dividing – or “dualistic” pattern – continued in the great minds of the next four hundred years.  Next, Descartes divided the world into the res extensa and res cogitans – the physical substance, and the thinking one – and the self was made of thought, while the brain was made of matter.  Then Locke divided the world into primary (physical) and secondary (mental) properties; the brain was primary – mathematical, countable, observable – the self was secondary, which is to say, subjective.  Hume divided thoughts into facts and ideas – the physical brain was a fact, and the self was an idea – that, to his eternal credit, he famously could not find. Kant divided the world into percepts and concepts, synthetic and analytic truths; the brain was a synthetic percept; the self was an analytic concept. He preferred neither to the other – understood they were in interaction – but by then it was too late.  One could choose sides; the Church took faith and self.  Science took facts, matter, and brain.

This dualism, built into the structure of the western world, cannot be negated by a social prejudice in favor of matter.  Being on the right side of a fad is not metaphysical superiority.

When I was a neurocredulist, I threw one twin overboard as though I could still hang out with the other, dry. I fell into some strange and grandiose delusion: that I could make these two children – with their two sets of DNA, and two minds, and single circulation – one.  I became as arrogant as a neurosurgeon, though in fairness not a surgeon in the world would have taken the case. No, they would have told me, no. These two kids are two – not one.   

But putting aside the logic of surgery – or should I say illogic? –  consider the argument that convinced everyone from Buddha to Descartes to William James.  Anyone who has lived with these twins knows, self has so much personality, it would be absurd to propose her murder.  Which is to say, experience is real.  Indeed, all we know is our experience.  Just because they have been saying this for 2,500 years does not make it obsolete.  It is as true today for us as Aristotle.  Every other aspect of consciousness – the explanation of how it got here, what created it, what it means – is in the end mere speculation.  But as a living experience, it’s all that’s true.  You are reading these words. You are experience. That anyone convinced you that your brain – which you have never seen – is more real than what is happening now in your experience is – what – a prank?  A hoax?  Or maybe just a crime.

And yet, in any event, and under any rationale, it really happened.  I became a materialist, and then a neuroanatomist, and finally a neurocredulist.  I failed to map my self – my pure point of privacy – onto the brain, and so decided, without sense or logic, that only brain was real.

In doing this I like to think I did more than merely prove my gullibility.  I think I showed the Enlightenment was not what Kant implied – the throwing off of dogmatic authority.  Rather it is worse: we internalized it – that’s why we no longer need kings.  The Enlightenment, with brutal efficiency, taught its recipients to cleave their hearts in two.  The humanities took mind, the sciences took brain.  In either case, we all took bait.

Here in recovery, I can spit it out.  Let me examine all my options.

First, as just reviewed, I could renounce the self, reject experience.  But as we’ve just seen, this is unacceptable – consciousness exists.  So that way’s out.

Second, I could weaken – without fundamentally altering – my definition of the self.  Rather than say it owns itself  I could simply say it is an owner of everything but itself. But this will in a single move undo all of modern western culture in the act.  For if the self owns not itself, then it is not private, not immaterial, not equal, and not free.  And what of value is left over after that?

Third, I could declare that the modern theory of the self proves that the First Law of Thermodynamics isn’t true.  Therefore the “Laws of Nature” cited in our Declaration of Independence would be a lie, and society would need dismantling – as would all of modern science.  But for a shrink by impure deduction to disprove science based on a theory of the self?   Right.

None of these three options is plausible.   But as such I am trapped.

I think this trap is real.  I think the Enlightenment really is at a cul-de-sac.  It cannot go on – and forward movement merely sends it back.

As though in some Greek tragedy, the source of the self’s power – that it is a perpetual motion machine – is its undoing.  It is impossible to locate this uncaused cause on neural terrain.  And in some comic farce, neuroscience cannot accomodate conscious experience. Which is only the most important feature of our lives.  We have therefore ended up in an absurdity.  We are committed simultaneously to two impossible notions: that we are subjects and also objects, that we are selves and also brains.  Worst of all, the two beliefs cannot save each other – in fact, each is its opposite’s fatal flaw.  And this is Neuroapocalypse.  The Enlightenment has reached its end.

Here at Neurocredulists Eponymous, we are, as we should be, not ashamed, but proud.  Without any help from Buddha, we westerners have seen through both the mind and brain illusions for ourselves.  Our dualism has run aground not upon some Eastern import, but pure and unadulterated internal inconsistency.  Like a works upon wrench left by its founders, the engine of the western metaphysic has seized up and stopped.  We stand here, bereft of our old information, drowning in the sound of water, wind and wonder: drowning in white noise.

This – at last – is true Neuroapocalypse.  It is not the death of self upon the brain.  It is the death of self on brain, and brain on self, each destroyed and destroying, like Yin and Yang, upon eachother.

Which is to say, our Enlightenment metaphysic is, at it has always been, impossible.  We are neither brains nor selves.  Neither one alone, nor both together, has ever – ever – existed.

It should not be surprising.  All historical eras run their course.  Every age is just a stage. All of human history – all of cosmic history – is just development. Everything comes to an end.  And through Neuroapocalypse the western Enlightenment, after four grand centuries, has now, I think, as well.

Continue to Post 7

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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.