Antonio Damascio is one of the top neuroscientists whose work directly touches on philosophical questions, and his clear and elegant writing is seasoned with relevant references to the arts. His blockbuster 1994 book, Descartes’ Error, explains that if the parts of our brain that support reason were not neurologically connected to the parts of our brain that support emotion, our reason would not be able to function. Reason requires that certain data are presented with emphasis, and that is the function of emotion. To be sure, our reasoning tends to be distorted by emotions; “biological drives such as obedience, conformity, the desire to preserve self-esteem . . . are often manifest as emotions and feelings.” For survival reasons, some emotions are connected with events in the brain stem and the limbic system, which are literally below the higher places in the brain that support intellectual reasoning.
His writing is head and shoulders above much science journalism. Although he reports many research results as solidly established fact, he also puts forth other ideas that he consistently acknowledges as tentative. He goes into detail, and reading his book thoroughly and carefully is hard work; but the less diligent reader can get a lot from a quicker reading, since so much of Damascio’s writing is easily accessible.
Most important, from my point of view, Damascio does an outstanding job of avoiding reductionism, emphasizing again and again that, despite the occasional appearance that the biological information he is reporting might seem to convey a reductionist leaning, he has utterly no intention of reducing the mind to the body. Some events in the brain are caused by the way we manipulate images in the mind, for example, by deliberation.
In his preface to the 2005 reprint of this book, Damascio writes that some research has supported his hope of interpreting “the mechanisms of basic homeostasis [as constituting] a blueprint for the cultural development of the human values which permit us to judge actions as good or evil, and classify objects as beautiful or ugly.” He was hoping to establish a “two-way bridge between neurobiology and the humanities, thus providing the way for a better understanding of human conflict and for a more comprehensive account of creativity.”
Now let me come to the point that moved me to write on his book today. Damascio traces connections (mediated by hypotheses here and there) between body, brain, emotion, and reason. Reading this started me thinking of my previous blogpost on cosmology, where I postulated an open universe with the Creator continuously pouring forth energy, mind, and spirit. Then I heard a sermon by a preacher who marvelously integrated spiritual, soulful, intellectual, emotional, and physical aspects of communication. Reflecting on this performance made me think of the different inputs into the mind from brain, mind, soul, and spirit. For example, I distinguish between material emotions (which Damascio describes impressively) and feelings of soul (a concept Damascio does not use, although he does distinguish higher level emotions or feelings).
Suppose we use the metaphor of the brain as including a radio receiver, sensitive to various wave-lengths. Suppose we imagine that that radio receive may be more or less sensitive to functions of the human mind that are nurtured by God:
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the spirit of counsel and of strength, the spirit of knowing and of piety. (Isaiah 11.2; Wycliffe Bible)
By expanding the picture in this way, we have a much fuller landscape in which to attempt to understand human experience. If our palette has more colors, we might be able to paint a more true and philosophically satisfying picture of how our mind works.