“The brain does the thinking — the meat.”
Last time, we looked at neuroscience’s idea that consciousness — and therefore the conscious self — is a conglomerate of various neural networks that process experience. In other words, the internal voice that narrates your life, that you’ve been hearing for as long as you can remember, isn’t the voice of a transcendent soul commenting about your Earthly experience, it’s the result of the biological functioning of your brain. Your brain matter — the meat, as sci-fi writer Terry Bisson called it in an Omni Magazine story back in 1991 — does the thinking.
Bisson’s sci-fi piece anticipated neuroscientific materialism by nearly two decades (not an unusual thing for sci-fi to do — sometimes it’s even intentional). Here’s the full text of the short story, which consists entirely of a conversation between an undercover extra-terrestrial and his superior, as the agent reports on his investigation of the human race. The story was made into a six-minute film, which you can watch here. Here’s an excerpt:
They’re made out of meat.”
“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”
“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat…. They’re born meat and they die meat … They’re meat all the way through.”
“Oh, there’s a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
“So what does the thinking?”
“You’re not understanding, are you? You’re refusing to deal with what I’m telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat.”
“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”
“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?”
“Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.”
“Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat.”
Conscious meat — the idea is preposterous to the aliens and to us. True, “meat” is an indelicate way to put it, which of course is intentional, but knowing that the term is a clever literary device doesn’t help us accept the idea, any more than we’re willing to accept the formal neuroscientific version we looked at last time:
“In the present theory, the content of consciousness, the stuff in the conscious mind, is distributed over a large set of brain areas, areas that encode vision, emotion, language, action plans, and so on. The full set of information that is present in consciousness at any one time has been called the “global workspace.” In the present theory, the global workspace spans many diverse areas of the brain. But the specific property of awareness, the essence of awareness added to the global workspace, is constructed by an expert system in a limited part of the brain…. The computed property of awareness can be bound to the larger whole… One could think of awareness as information.”
Consciousness and the Social Brain. Michael S. A. Graziano (2013)
Sci-fi version or neuroscience version — either way, the message is preposterous: “Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”
Yes, as a matter of fact. And also as a matter of fact, that “preposterous!” judgment is at least in some measure a case of “refusing to deal with what I’m telling you.” Revolutionary scientific paradigm shifts don’t easily become mainstream. The idea that the Earth isn’t flat has been around way longer than Columbus, but some brains still don’t believe it. The concept of an eternal, transcendent soul has been around even longer; it’s been thoroughly wired into individual and cultural consciousness; we’re convinced that’s the way it is. But now along comes neuroscience, saying that it knows something different. Our well-worn neural pathways tilt at the suggestion. The best we can do is relegate the idea to fiction, where things don’t have to be true — at least not now, although they might become so in the future.
Besides, there’s another, deeper, more pervasive belief at work here — about what it means for science to know something is true.
“But isn’t science in any case about what is right and true? Surely nobody wants to be wrong and false? Except that it isn’t, and we seriously limit our ability to lift the veils of ignorance and change antiscientific beliefs if we persist in peddling this absurdly simplistic view of what science is.
“Despite appearances, science offers no certainty. Decades of progress in the philosophy of science have led us to accept that our prevailing scientific understanding is a limited-time offer, valid only until a new observation or experiment proves that it’s not.”
But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.
Scientific knowledge is throwaway truth — only useable until something better comes along. Conviction, on the other hand, casts its truth in adamantine. Scientific knowledge demands correction, while personal and cultural conviction punishes it.
More next time.
 See this article for a look at how science fiction sometimes informs science non-fiction. Here’s a sample: “Fictionalising the future can be an effective way of realising it and making it familiar…. As the science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow put it in 2014: ‘There is nothing weird about a company … commissioning a story about people using a technology to decide if the technology is worth following through on. It’s like an architect creating a virtual fly-through of a building.’”