Translated by Rumia Bose
This may surprise you. I am a scientist. Scientists do not believe, they know. What they know is based on scientifically proven facts. Or so we think.
I am interested in the working of the brain. In the course of time dedicated scientists have unearthed millions of facts. But this has not been enough to understand the workings of the brain. We do know a lot about the workings of neurons or brain cells. How electric currents flow through these cells thereby traversing the whole brain. How this leads to the release of chemicals, neurotransmitters, in far removed parts of the brain, which inhibit or stimulate yet other brain cells. Does this tell us how the brain works? Does this even explain how a person acts or thinks? Actually, no, then we need to examine the brain as a whole. A lot of current research is directed into neurons working together in networks. These changing configurations of cooperating neurons might explain much about what and how people act and think. This way of thinking is slowly replacing the earlier model in which particular brain areas carry out particular tasks. Such as the amygdala, which is supposed to be responsible for fear reactions and the hippocampus for memory. I believe this is the right way to go.
Do neurons contain thoughts?
Does this model also explain how a person comes around to doing or thinking something? What motivates me to write these articles? I once had a conversation with the Dutch psychiatrist Menno Oosterhoff about the working of the brain. Menno also writes blogs. Might he have the same motivation as I? Unlikely. He is a very different person. When he is engaged in writing, then you would expect to see very different activity in his neuronal networks than you would with me, I think. There will also be similarities. The activity in some parts of his brain when he presses a key on his computer keyboard will resemble the activity in my brain when I press a key. I think that the more simple the behaviour, the more easily it can be related directly to activity of neurons or neuronal networks. And the more complex the behaviour, the less easily the demonstrable connection to specific activity of neurons or neuronal networks. Or, as Alicia Juarrero puts it, ” …a given neurological configuration might not embody […] a thought, a fear, a smell at all”.
The scientist believes
Menno thinks that there is more to the mind than just matter. He cannot understand or accept that free will and consciousness can be reduced to chemicals and cells. ” I have given up on the hope of finding, in my lifetime, the kind of certainty that fulfils the demands of my obsessive mind, that is, complete certainty. I permit myself a half-hearted belief in an afterlife and a Father in heaven who knows what he is doing, and in free will.” Does Alicia Juarrero also believe that there is more than just matter? Do I believe this? She describes how it is possible that motivation arises out of neurons without being traceable to a particular configuration of neurons. So you do not even need to try to locate motivation within the activities of brain cells. And this I believe too. What now? The scientist believes. This is how it works.
What do I believe ?
In this context I have extensively studied the research and descriptions of the work of Alicia Juarrero, Walter J. Freeman and other great minds. This pertains to complex dynamic systems and their properties, which are not traceable to the level of their components. The functions of the whole -the complex dynamical system- can even direct the activity of the parts. Loosely translated: thoughts can direct the activities of neurons. Which does not take away that the reverse is also true: neurons direct thoughts. This proposes a bidirectionality of cause and effect. The activity of neurons causes thoughts, and thoughts cause the activity of neurons. How that works? This I do not quite understand. Too difficult for my brain. But from what I do understand I believe that what they are saying is correct.
The value of believing
This belief has its uses and dangers. If you want to understand complex issues then you need to form concepts, to form a coherent whole from that which you know1. Otherwise it remains disjointed. I therefore try to form a coherent whole in my brain from my knowledge about the brain. But there remain gaps in my knowledge2, because I do not understand some things, or because these still fall under undiscovered territory. I fill in these gaps if necessary to form a coherent whole. Whether these fillers I use are actually correct Is not completely clear; or perhaps completely unclear. But I do believe in its correctness. This is where belief comes in: assuming certainty where it cannot be verified.
Those who believe in God do the same. They do not understand how nature, living beings, humans came to exist. They cannot tolerate not knowing and this is why they fill in these gaps. Whether this is actually correct Is not completely clear; or perhaps completely unclear. When looked at this way there is not much of a difference between believing in God and my belief in how the brain works.
The danger of believing
The danger of believing is that it can take fixed forms and may lead to thinking that your belief is an objective truth. In my case I have to almost daily adjust my concept about the working of the brain, based on new information. In this I need to be extremely conscious not to ignore new information which does not fit into my current concepts. Additionally, I try to be aware of where exactly I have filled in gaps. This you can see in the preceding passage wherever you come across statements where I say that I “think” or “believe”. These concern aspects where I do not know if they are proven.
But does everything has to be proven? This would be impossible, and does not have to be. But scientific proof is in my opinion the only way to find out if what I believe is true. Without the empirical evidence it remains subjective, what I believe; with the empirical evidence it is objective, what we know. Before the establishment of this proof I cannot expect others to share my concepts -which I belief to be true- but after this I can. This attitude is not shared by everyone. Then belief becomes an institution. Gurus declare the truth and followers believe because the guru says so. And that is a danger, both regarding spiritual and scientific issues. Menno and I do not wish to force our beliefs on others; he believes in a Heavenly Father and I do not. I do believe in how I fill in the gaps in my knowledge.
Kruglanski AW, Jasko K, Friston K (2020): All Thinking is ‘Wishful’ Thinking. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 24:413–424.
Gelpi R, Cunningham WA, Buchsbaum D (2020): Belief as a non-epistemic adaptive benefit. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 43. DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X19002206
Scheffer, Marten, Jordi Bascompte, Tone K. Bjordam, Stephen R. Carpenter, Laurie B. Clarke, Carl Folke, Pablo Marquet, e.a. ‘Dual Thinking for Scientists’. Ecology and Society 20, nr. 2 (2015): art3. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-07434-200203.
Juarrero A (2015): What does the closure of context-sensitive constraints mean for determinism, autonomy, self-determination, and agency? Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 119:510–521.
Jarnefelt E, Canfield CF, Kelemen D (2015): The divided mind of a disbeliever: Intuitive beliefs about nature as purposefully created among different groups of non-religious adults. Cognition 140:72–88.
Deacon, Terrence William. Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, 2012. ISBN 978-0-393-08083-4
Freeman WJ (2000): How Brains Make up their Minds. New York, Columbia University Press.
- Delusions and conspiracy theories: belief in conceived logic
- Hebri Poincaré: C’est par la logique qu’on démontre, c’est par l’intuition qu’on invente. https://fr.wikiquote.org/wiki/Henri_Poincaré