Faversham Stoa is a philosophy discussion group meeting on the 3rd Tuesday of every month from 7.30 to 9.30pm in the The Bull in Tanners Street. We cover a large range of topics. If you have an idea for a topic that you would like us to cover why not drop us a line? There's no charge for membership and everyone is welcome to drop in. Just bring your brain and some beer money!

I am a brain

When Ceri Braum accepted the gift of eternal life, this was not quite what she had in mind. Sure, she knew that her brain would be removed from her body and kept alive in a vat. She also knew her only connection with the outside world would be via a camera, a microphone and a speaker. But at the time, living for ever like this seemed a pretty good deal, especially compared to living for not much longer in her second, deteriorating body. In retrospect, however, perhaps she had been convinced too easily that she was just her brain. When her first body had given out, surgeons had taken out her brain and put it into the body of someone whose own brain had failed. Waking up in the new body, she had no doubt that she was still the same person, Ceri Braum. And since it was only her brain that remained from her old self, it also seemed safe to conclude that she was, therefore, essentially her brain.

But life just as a brain strikes Ceri as extremely impoverished. How she longs for the fleshiness of a more complete existence. Nevertheless, since it is her, Ceri, now having these thoughts and doubts, is she nonetheless right to conclude that she is, in essence, nothing more or less than her brain?

Among all the talk abbut the mysteries of human consciousness - of which there are many - it can easily be forgotten that one fact is surely firmly established: thought is dependent on a healthy, functioning brain. The evidence that this is the case is overwhelming. Drugs, bumps on the head and degenerative diseases all affect our cognitive abilities. The mind cannot protect itself against attacks on the brain.

The evidence against is tiny. Anecdotal accounts of messages from the dead and departed can sound impressive, but the truth is that nothing even approaching strong evidence that they are genuine has yet been produced.

Given that we think we are the individuals who have our thoughts, feelings and memories, and that it is the brain that makes all these possible, would we then be right to conclude that we are our brains? Surely where our brains go, we go too? If my brain is successfully transplanted to your body and vice versa, then wouldn't I be living on in your body and you in mine? We should be careful before drawing this strong conclusion. We may well depend upon our brains for our existence, but this is very different from saying we are our brains. Compare the situation with a musical score. It can exist only in something physical: sheet music, a computer file, perhaps even the brain of a musician. But it would be wrong to conclude that a score therefore is any of these objects. The score is, in essence, a kind of code which needs to be inscribed somewhere to continue to exist. But it is the code, not the somewhere, which makes it what it is. Might this not also be true of the human self? The notes and keys that make up the indiv'idual personality could be the thoughts, memories and character traits that together define who we are. There is nowhere else for this score to be written but in the human brain. That does not, however, mean we are our brains.

If that is the case, it would explain why Ceri's new existence feels so thin. Just as a musical score that is never performed remains potential rather than actual, a human mind that cannot inhabit a human body is a diminished shadow of its true self. And yet it is possible to lose all feeling in one's body and to become effectively a mind imprisoned in an insensate body. Are not such people, who of course actually exist, living examples of brains being kept alive by physical processes? And if so, doesn't that suggest we can be no more than our brains after all?

from The Pig Who Wants to be Eaten by Juian Baggini (page 112)

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