Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [6]: “The Meat Thinks”

they're made out of meat 2

“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[1]). 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.”

“No brain?”

“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.

[1] 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.’”


Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul’s letter to the Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)

How did Paul know that? Why was he so convinced?

According to psychology and neuroscience, he didn’t know it, he was convinced of it. The difference reflects Cartesian dualism:  the belief that we can know things about the natural world through scientific inquiry, but in the supernatural world, truth is a matter of conviction.

Academics draw distinctions between these and other terms,[1] but in actual experience, the essence seems to be emotional content. Scientific knowledge is thought to be emotionally detached — it wears a lab coat, pours over data, expresses conclusions intellectually. It believes its conclusions, but questioning them is hardwired into scientific inquiry; science therefore must hold its truth in an open hand — all of which establish a reliable sense of what is “real.” Conviction, on the other hand, comes with heart, with a compelling sense of certainty. The emotional strength of conviction makes questioning its truth — especially religious convictions — something to be discouraged or punished.

Further, while knowledge may come with a Eureka! moment — that satisfying flash of suddenly seeing clearly — conviction often comes with a sense of being overtaken by an authority greater than ourselves — of being apprehended and humbled, left frightened and grateful for a second chance.

Consider the etymologies of conviction and convince:

conviction (n.)

mid-15c., “the proving or finding of guilt of an offense charged,” from Late Latin convictionem(nominative convictio) “proof, refutation,” noun of action from past-participle stem of convincere “to overcome decisively,” from com-, here probably an intensive prefix (see com-), + vincere “to conquer” (from nasalized form of PIE root *weik- (3) “to fight, conquer”).

Meaning “mental state of being convinced or fully persuaded” is from 1690s; that of “firm belief, a belief held as proven” is from 1841. In a religious sense, “state of being convinced one has acted in opposition to conscience, admonition of the conscience,” from 1670s.

convince (v.)

1520s, “to overcome in argument,” from Latin convincere “to overcome decisively,” from assimilated form of com-, here probably an intensive prefix (see com-), + vincere “to conquer” (from nasalized form of PIE root *weik- (3) “to fight, conquer”). Meaning “to firmly persuade or satisfy by argument or evidence” is from c. 1600. Related: Convincedconvincingconvincingly.

To convince a person is to satisfy his understanding as to the truth of a certain statement; to persuade him is, by derivation, to affect his will by motives; but it has long been used also for convince, as in Luke xx. 6, “they be persuaded that John was a prophet.” There is a marked tendency now to confine persuade to its own distinctive meaning. [Century Dictionary, 1897]

Both knowledge and conviction, and the needs they serve, are evolutionary survival skills:  we need what they give us to be safe, individually and collectively. Knowledge satisfies our need to be rational, to think clearly and logically, to distinguish this from that, to put things into dependable categories. Conviction satisfies the need to be moved, and also to be justified — to feel as though you are in good standing in the cosmology of how life is organized.

Culturally, conviction is often the source of embarrassment, guilt, and shame, all of which have a key social function — they are part of the glue that holds society together. Becoming aware that we have transgressed societal laws or behavioral norms (the “conviction of sin”) often brings not just chastisement but also remorse and relief — to ourselves and to others in our community:  we’ve been arrested, apprehended, overtaken by a corrective authority, and saved from doing further harm to ourselves and others.

Knowledge and conviction also have something else in common:  both originate in the brain’s complex tangle of neural networks:

“It is unlikely that beliefs as wide-ranging as justice, religion, prejudice or politics are simply waiting to be found in the brain as discrete networks of neurons, each encoding for something different. ‘There’s probably a whole combination of things that go together,’ says [Peter Halligan, a psychologist at Cardiff University].

“And depending on the level of significance of a belief, there could be several networks at play. Someone with strong religious beliefs, for example, might find that they are more emotionally drawn into certain discussions because they have a large number of neural networks feeding into that belief.”

Where Belief Is Born, The Guardian (June 30,2005).

And thus protected by the knowledge and convictions wired into our neural pathways, we make our way through this precarious thing called “life.”

More next time.

[1] Consider also the differences between terms like conviction and belief, and fact, opinion, belief, and prejudice.