Who Owns My Brain?


1. a decisive remark, reply, argument
2. Something unusually large, heavy

Harris is adroit with a sockdolager. He asserts morality is commonly misunderstood as either externally driven (sanctified sources, faith-based) or an internal illusion (think Jimminy Cricket – an informed inner voice; usually faith-based or "empowered" in some sense).

preview1287437042He presents a third way: morality as a rational response to changeable circumstances, based on core ideas that can be tested, falsified, measured.

But we might not comprehend his evidence, or even allow it, if we read it with the usual two sets of eyes – our own, and "God's", or "higher truth's", or "the infinite's." It goes beyond early indoctrination or urgent faith. Despite any physical evidence, and based on sensation alone, we insist: there are two of us, in here, behind the eyes. It's inherent to human cognition.

Harris grounds well-being as a fundamental aspect of morality, then describes how our well-being depends on "events in the world" and "states of the human brain." Both lend themselves to human inquiry. The sum of this – our brain's habitual ways of coping with its own states and outside events – guides all behavior, and presents itself to the world as an essential part of our personas.

Along the way we lose the thread, and credit an "Other" with our choices, or else defer to an authority, even when it decreases well-being and contradicts reality. I believe we get lost right from the start, at a pre-conscious level, because we can't directly experience our brain.

We have chemistry, you and I.
Natural chemicals, Vasopresin & Oxytocin, (study, Keverne, et al; cited by Harris) offer one way to measure brain changes linked to a sense of well-being.

In a new AMNH exhibit, "The Brain", a special area explores the ways science can now and in the near future directly interact with, and alter, our brains. In 2007, out-of-body (OOB) experiences were created in patients by direct electrical stimulation to a specific part of the brain, proving them to be not supernatural but physical. The mapping of the brain is accelerating.

In "Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences" (2010), Rebecca Jordan-Young surveys recent research and finds prenatal hormones, flooding the embryo,  account for some sex differences. The brain is changed and affected again and again by hormones as a child moves through adolescence and beyond. The brain remains the "source" of our personas, for we do not experience these secretions directly, nor do the changes manifest as anything other than the sensations of "me." The brain's habit of identifying the "I" as inside "me" is unaffected.

My persona projects both directions: outwards (what I allow, or can't help but show, to other sentient beings), and inwards (what I see about myself, wish to be true, ignore, deny, and invent), and it's this inward projection that is distorted by both lag time and the unique limits of self-sensation.

And even though I can control it, I don't experience my brain manipulation directly, but rather obliquely, and only with an intellectual effort most of us never make. I can alter, degrade, or enhance our brain, with alcohol, pot, prescriptions, and by making art, making love, or spinning 'til I fall down dizzy. These temporarily change my brain chemistry; my persona marches on.

"I" thus can alter "me" – but not the essential "me", not easily. I do so deliberately, with behavior and substances, but the illusion of duality – body vs soul, brain vs God, self vs self – persists, trumps our attempts to feel complete; to be "one". Why? Because it's inherent, and useful, to direct ourselves at a remove, to have some room to re-evaluate, change course, or react quickly. How can we do this if can't experience "watching" ourselves?

Because my brain is physically behind my eyes, ears, nose, and voice, I can see my arms follow my commands. I can watch my body carry out missions I choose and direct. We can't, however, easily expand our consciousness to experience its immanence from our whole being, or swarm it into any part of us, to feel a right arm as "me". No one wakes up thinking with the knee. Always, always, the brain. (We don't use meth to change our left calf, or twirl in Sufi ecstasy to make our fourth rib happy.)

Two into One doesn't go.
Beside myself.
Outside myself.
I love myself, hate myself, know myself.
He's a different person now.
She's not who she pretends to be.
They're something else!
I'm reborn.
Twice as nice, half as smart.
Not all there.
I don't know who you are anymore.
I need to find or accept or deny myself.
I can get behind where you're coming from.

Huh? I say "I. am. me." and everyone understands these, incongruently, as an operational assumption of singularity–"me". It's a bald confession of the inherent illusion of duality, but we all pat it down, comforted that "I am my own man." The integrity-of-oneness is invoked with a lie, when our language blithely confesses our irrefutable, unchangeable dichotomy.

But this biological oddity offers no proof of an Other, within or without us. It just makes it easier to embrace the "Other" idea.

Human beings are, inherently, organically, nuts.

And brave. But are we brave enough to grow past our biological limitations, conquer our fear – of moral anarchy, of Dr. Strangelove's nihilistic materialism, of being separated from loving-kindness in a predictable bureaucratic society – in other words, overcome all the obstacles we invent, real and imagined, reduce all the excesses and failures that fuel our terror? That fuel the fear of truly inhabiting ourselves, being just and responsible without sacred permissions, threats or rewards? Harris offers a solution for this: "Goodness" is preserved in his system, not as archaic holy writ, unable to adapt, or some kind of absolute, Platonic substance, to be accessed; but for the practical benefits of co-operations and a generous self-interest that admits to both human power and human failings.

Even if we set aside, contingently, the ideal of a perfect morality, in heaven or anywhere, and embrace Harris' work of establishing (or just recognizing) objective morality, we face more impediments. We still have an illusion of being in the central position, from birth, back when we were, in fact, catered to.

What's Good? Morality? Values?
Harris artfully re-frames the argument as one of "well-being", not "good." He overcomes G. E. Moore's regress problem (basically, as each new definition of good is proposed, the question is asked on what foundation is that thing intrinsically "good", not just subjectively, temporally "good"?) by shifting the question to the well-being of conscious creatures. He makes a strong case for the quantifiability of well-being, and how any moral choice can be evaluated in terms of enhancing/protecting well-being, or diminishing it.

He sharpens the distinction about values, too. "Values" is the more relative term: what is valued in one era is denigrated in another, what one person values can cause harm to another. And the values of religious traditions are often a mixed bag, of condemnation of biology, of the elevation of impossible personal goals, and of poorly defined standards of "good."

Even the best of religious values are poorly understood and selectively applied. But when tested against rubrics of well-being and compassion, even sacred duty and holy commandments are improved.

It continues into adulthood. It flatters us that God invented all of this for us, that He wants us to be holy. "More blessed" (or sanctified, or enlightened) can be in some sense true – some people are, through self-discipline or just naturally, calmer, kinder, or more "noble" – but routinely it is a kind of banal narcissism, sustained with tortured theology, pride of practice, rigorous adherence to rituals; and based on the invocation of an inflexible moral authority. No important difference* between "Jesus loves me" and "I am one with the Buddha", for most people. Both justify our moral choices with the authority of a supernatural being, and neither help us overcome the dissonance in our sense of self, unless combined with an empirically-based examination of our biology.

But it's easier to embrace a Captain when we don't question the validity of being individually Captained by a "soul". It's easier to preserve the illusion of a "soul" when we invest faith in an omni-everything Captain. Circular un-reason.

Kinds of Faith
Psychologist Jonathan C. Smith promotes a smart system for understanding the varieties of faith.

1. First kind: Empirical-based faith, notable as a contingent belief that's open to critical evaluation. For example: "I have faith in my furnace until it starts to make clanking noises and the house gets colder."

2. Second kind: Unfalsifiable faith claims, wherein the believer recognizes and can be affected by empirical evidence up to a point, but chooses to place faith in unfalsifiable beliefs anyway. Example: "God answers prayers in ways that hide his hand in it." Significantly, Second kind persons routinely reject most unfalsifiable claims, and are commonsensical about most issues.

3. Third kind: Emotional faith, or blind faith, based on choice alone. An example: "God exists and I will not entertain any alternative." Biblical literalist, Stalinist apologists, flat-earthers, etc., all reject empiricism as such.

So we ALL have faith, but not all faith is equivalent. Says Smith: "A scientist trusts the tools of critical thinking and the body of scientific findings produced by such tools. ... It is provisional and could be conceivably be altered in the face of new evidence." Third kind believers waste our time, but some
Second kind persons can theoretically be reached (on the topic of a deity, anyway) if they can be shown the biological inheritance we share, the delusion of a "guide inside", and how it pre-disposes us to displace morality as Other-driven.

This is important, because a rational morality is our only true "salvation".

The "soul" is an assumption, based on sensation and misperception, but completely understandable as such. Two tequilas and the "other me" – the grinning, funnier, dancing me – is front and center. The second presence might be inevitable as a human brain characteristic, but the extension to "other" authorities must be resisted, and repudiated.

Not only can we make an objective, adaptable morality, we already do, every day. No dogma is strictly followed, by any sect. Contingencies and nuances are allowed. Brats are not stoned and threads are mixed, even by the most devout, in spite of Leviticus.

Harris says faith's "moral truth" and the so-called naturalistic explanation, of simply "evolutionary pressure and cultural invention" are both incorrect. For example, smoking pot is neither "morally wrong" nor a "civic vice" as absolutes. The "right" or "wrong" of altering our own brains with pot is contingent, quantifiable, and relative. Science can determine this, if politics allows. We do so already with alcohol: drinking wine with dinner does not endanger well-being (marinated Romanian steak and a bottle of P.Fussy, especially); driving while drunk does endanger well-being.

Somewhere around 100,000 years ago we noticed "we" were "thinking". We became different than "reality". We promptly adorned ourselves. No longer a herd animal, our self-identity and self-consciousness gave birth to our "soul". A deeper and truer guide, a magic internal resource, a spirit we could invoke and ingest–it seemed manifest and palpable, before science gave us tools for evaluating such claims. The Soul was born, and all manner of horror, wonder, cruelty and beauty was the result.

And all art, too. As we became self-aware, and thus felt "ownership" and the sensation of being "owned", we used these ghosts, doppelgangers, masters, and mentors as "excuses", for soaring music, breathtaking art, passionate literature, tragedy and comedy. The extension of identity beyond the mundane–past the cycles of safety, dinner, sex, more dinner, more sex–liberated us.

The Left and Right Brain Myth
While there are differences in how each hemisphere processes aspects of functions (for language, Right focuses on emphasis and intonation, Left is about words and grammar), there is now strong evidence that the whole brain works in concert.

Each side can do what the other does, but one side is more efficient at certain tasks. So we come to rely on delegation, deployed in milliseconds by a very smart brain.

(thanks to Bejamin Radford, the "Skeptical Inquiree" columnist, see sources below)

And crippled us. I am just "me" in here. You are just "you" in there. We are responsible for how all this turns out. No invisible being is protecting us, rooting for us, judging us from without or within. We can know about our brains now, in spite of it operating too fast to feel the cause and effect of self-determination immediately, as it happens, moment-to-moment. We are stunned by our own magnificent ability, reeling from existing in the lag time behind our own process, and so we credit the divine – but we don't have to. We can and feel we must assign a face, a role, a name, to the inner otherliness, the inspired part, the bad influence, the invisible eye, the persistent memory of correction and encouragement, the infinite feeling of spirit. It is our own name, our own ability, that deserves to be recognized, to be owned.

How can the enormity of love that changes our lives, the thrum of excitement that fills our breath, the colossal dizziness of watching the stars turn, all come from me, just me, just my brain? Just firing synapses, the self climbing the lattice of what we learn and choose?

How can it be anything else?

brstruc1287438250I am, you are, just brains, in a mobile and graceful architecture. All of our crocked and terrible history, all of hope and nobility and compassion sizzles along silently in half-a-kilo of grey, gelid, banal organ.

The mystery of life is intact, nonetheless. We lose nothing by admitting the materialist view; for all holy sensations are but a subset of what's real. The "Mighty Clouds of Joy" are mine forever, with or without a re-born carpenter.

We know this, can debate it, feel it, all of it, because of this (taps head).

The moral landscape will improve when we see ourselves as act-ors, independent, free of ghosts and invisible, plasmic forces. We are brilliant apes. My brain is "me" and I own myself, so I spin as I like. And because I live in human society, I must make rational moral choices, without the confusion of imaginary forces, or a blind faith in moral systems built by pre-scientific people for more brutal times.


"I am me as you are he and you are me and we are all together"
"Come Together", Lennon and McCartney


* I tend to agree with Harris that Buddhism offers a way forward for those of us who want both secularism and an ecstatic one-ness with the infinite, as it were. Buddhist principles of compassion are well-conceived, and don't suffer from Christianity's illogic and attached super-naturalism, regarding lovingkindness. Buddhism claims to have a way to transcend the illusion of duality, but reading both the historical and modern Buddhist writings it's hard to say for certain if this is an ideal that each individual realizes and experiences differently, via self-discipline, as either selective focus, or willful disregard, or else as a true refinement of awareness of both the perceivable and the imperceptible. Buddhist doctrine requires of us long years of applied practice, and history shows such investment creates its own kind of self-deception by its adherents. But the premises in Buddhism are mostly sound regarding the illusion of self, and it deserves credit as the only religious tradition that eschews faith per se, and welcomes change based on scientific findings. For all belief systems a day-to-day reality intrudes, and human beings tend to want sacred validation for their beliefs, so even among Buddhists it's easy to find hierarchical understandings that culminate in a godhead-by-other-means, who "proves" their position.


"The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris

"Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences" (2010), Rebecca Jordan-Young

"Bringing Out-Of-Body Experiences Down to Earth", by Stephen Novella, 9/21/07, http://theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=12

"Mapping the Brain", by Anne Trafton, MIT (1/28/2010, http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2010/brain-mapping.html)

"Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal: A Critical Thinker's Toolkit" (textbook), and "Hope: Faith, Atheism, and Agnosticism", (Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 35, Issue 1, 2011), by Jonathan C. Smith (http://www.lulu.com/stress, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

"Left Brained or Right Brained?" (Skeptical Inquirer, ibid) by Bejamin Radford (Fellow at Committee for Skeptical Inquiry)

"21st Century Brain" (from "The Brain", a live and online exhibit at The American Museum of Natural History, http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/brain/21stcentury.php)

Misc Sources for G.E.Moore:
• Cited in Harris, Introduction
• Several references in The Fallacy Files (http://www.fallacyfiles.org/regressf.html)
• "Moore Against The New Skeptics", Wiliam G. Lycan (http://www.unc.edu/~ujanel/SKEPMOOR.htm)
• The Galilean Library, comments (http://www.galilean-library.org/site/index.php/topic/2826-to-really-exist-and-the-infinite-regress-problem/)

Brain Facts and Figures (http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/facts.html)


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Originally published on Does This Make Sense? for Nikki Stern
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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

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