Two recently approved initiatives in the United States and Europe both adopt the same assumption: in human and animal life, the brain explains everything.

The Interim Report of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative (hereinafter BRAIN Initiative)1 states: “Our brains make us who we are, enabling us to perceive beauty, teach our children, remember loved ones, react against injustice, learn from history, and imagine a different future.”2 Statements from the European Union’s Human Brain Project (HBP)3 are comparable: “Using tools provided by the HBP, scientists will have the opportunity to identify the complex cascades of events leading from genes to cognition.”4

Brain research is intended to produce valuable results in medicine and information technology. All to the good. Nevertheless, the contentions made by both the BRAIN Initiative and the HPB are not only unproven, but indefensible. Their most egregious error lies in a doctrinal misconception of what the mind does. The mind is a matter of memory, belief, intention, desire, will, and the like—mentalities.5 Both the BRAIN Initiative and the HBP make it a matter of their record that they look at human beings as material objects; that everything humans are and do has a causal source in the material laws of nature.

In the case of human beings, the mentalities are in some instances far beyond the accomplishments of any other animal, and in other instances they are no different at all. Or, at least, they are not known to be fundamentally different, or better. Intelligence in the form of problem solving is greater in human beings than in other animals, but memory may not be.

A Mental Achievement

Memory has been studied in mice, monkeys, and men, over many years. Other mental achievements would be analyzed differently, but it would be tedious to proceed from one to another in order to elucidate and comment on those differences. Instead, memory will be used as an example to make and defend a sharp contrast between the branches of the sciences concerned with the brain and the knowledge we have from experience.

Consider a 2004 report on memory by the neuroscientist and psychologist Howard Eichenbaum, published in Neuron. The author recalls a professional meeting:

Each event within this episodic memory includes a combination of features: yourself, your colleague, what she/he and you said, and where the conversation took place. In addition, a vivid episodic representation for the encounter is organized according to the order of events; it unfolds as a “mental replay” of the encounter extended over time. Thus, that memory can be deconstructed into a series of associative representations, wherein each discrete event includes the relevant people, their actions, and the place where that event occurred, and these representations are sequentially organized to compose the flow of events in that unique experience.6

The description with which Eichenbaum introduces neuroscience is flawed. It leaves uncharacterized as belonging to memory what Eichenbaum terms features, namely: “yourself, your colleagues, what she/he and you said, and where the conversation took place.”7 What can he mean, when his purpose is to find associations in the brain, by any of those features? What can it mean for me to remember myself, or surely in some different sense, to remember my colleagues? To say that I remember myself being there is an opaque supposition. I can say, of course, that I remember being there, but this doesn’t say anything about me as a constituent of that memory.

If I say I remember colleagues who attended the meeting, this is also ambiguous. A context and purpose must be provided. I can list them, if you want to know who was there. I can recall who participated in this or that discussion; although if I say that I remember all my colleagues, I may forget a few. It is very unlikely that I will remember exactly what everybody said. Nevertheless, I can correctly say that I remember our discussions and report who participated, because I have a recollection of the course of the conversation.

A case of the sort Eichenbaum describes is exceedingly rare and in itself of little value. I do not recall the past in mental images of people and places, nor do I rehearse verbatim, even in brief passages, past conversations unless their episode was of unusual importance, because such a form is not sufficiently intelligible for my needs. If a conversation lasts an hour, to review its mental representation would require a similar amount of time. I remember what my colleagues and I were talking about, but I will not remember the words, sounds, or intonations unless they conveyed a special meaning. I can concentrate on a particular exchange, which will be essentialized and fragmentary. I can answer many questions about the meeting and about what people said, but without having the answers laid out beforehand so that I have a pictorial record in mind of what, according to Eichenbaum, has been encoded in the hippocampus. My ability to answer questions fashions itself to the question. I do not have to read through the full transcript and from it, using another cognitive program, abstract a reply.

The Irrelevance of Information

These descriptive deviations, trivial in themselves, precede the main point that must be questioned. Eichenbaum’s biological conjecture is illustrated in the following passage:

The hippocampus receives convergent afferents from virtually all cortical association areas, and these inputs are widely distributed onto the cell population in multiple subdivisions of the hippocampus. Thus, CA3 [a region in the hippocampus] principal cells have as their main afferents considerable high-level perceptual information about attended stimuli and spatial cues as well as other information from diverse cortical regions.8

The prominent use of the term “information” is contextually misleading. It suggests that afferent information is about something, whereas perceptual information can only be purely neurological, in the form of chemical and electrical impulses. Sensory nerve endings are stimulated by energetic impact with the outer world. Signals resulting from stimulation pass along nerves of one kind or another into the brain. Here they are sorted and directed to appropriate functional areas, each of which contains large numbers of modules that act, by means of computation, or something akin to computation, on the received neurological data. The incoming sensory data will be discarded, stored, or sent on to centers in which, among other uses, physical movements of the body are controlled. These stimulations, modifications, and inducements to physical actions are not under semantic control. None of them can be described as information in an unqualified sense of the term.

There are some respectable but qualified senses of information that are not semantic. Claude Shannon’s information theory concerns itself with information in a particular, though perfectly appropriate, sense.9 Shannon was interested in recovering an original message, regardless of its content, from excessive noise that led to degradation. In information theory, entropy is the average amount of information contained in a message. In this context, a message is an event in a stream of data, which is defined in terms of the recipient’s use, not in terms of its origin. The more unlikely the event, the more information it is said to contain. Information is defined mathematically as the negative of the logarithm of the probability distribution. It is not defined in terms of semantically meaningful propositions or representations.

Shannon’s theory, somewhat modified, has been applied in modern genetics. It has not proved to be of much use. Likewise in brain research, though mentioned, it has not been of noticeable value. The reason for this is that the corruption of a message is rarely an issue in DNA or brains. Straightforward, non-semantic information conveyed in the brain, regarded as sets of instructions to their realizations, is unproblematic but also not instructive. A useless means of referring to the biological facts, it adds nothing to them.

The semantic concept of information in brain studies is problematic, but would indeed be instructive if it were established to be correct. Cognitive mentalities have for a long time been described as propositional; therefore they are thought to exist and play their roles by virtue of their semantic form, their meaning. If mentalities are to be established as carrying information, they must retain a semantic character. To speak of mentalities in a semantic mode is to propose that meaning governs their performance.

To say that I endeavor to recall an occasion on which I offended Aunt Bee, leaves out anything like instructions that provide identifying details. A computational search, on the other hand, proceeds only under details sufficiently elaborated to guide the data review and stop at a defined target. We often attempt to remember something whose precise nature isn’t stipulated. Our experience, so far as we can rely on it, confirms only semantic control of memory.

A critic will ask, “When you say, ‘I endeavor to recall…’ who is this I?” Is this a violation of the materialist’s worldview? More is owed to him than that. The critic will also ask, “Why do you elevate experience as the final arbiter?” Brain science, the critic will assert, presupposes that experience itself is organized and made manifest through the operations of the brain. Thus experience is derived, not original. These are good questions and should be answered, so that exactly what is at issue, if not fully resolved, may become perfectly clear.

Giving Memory Assignments

In response to these questions, it is worth mentioning what we all do with our memory: we give it assignments. These assignments are semantic rather than computational. Memory is the subject once more here, because it illustrates the inapplicability of the word “state” to this mentality.

For example, my cousin might warn me, prior to a family gathering, to be nice to Aunt Bee. Let’s assume that my cousin had, from prior conversations with Aunt Bee, formed the impression that I’d said something in the past to offend her. I had been unaware of the offense until this moment. Thus I will reflect on my behavior towards my aunt. I am sorry to have upset Aunt Bee, albeit perhaps inadvertently, so I will endeavor to recall what I might have said with little more to go on than my cousin’s warning. Consequently, I will neither wish, nor attempt, to remember particular interactions. Instead I shall only remember salient conversations and potentially revelatory situations, seeking in them the clues to my misdeeds.

Assuming that I might review the records of such occasions, suggests that I can undertake an exceedingly time consuming activity, without any precedent guidance. It would be an undertaking as useless as the original events in helping me to see the error of my ways.

This remembering under a purpose is not a state; it is not unified in time, place, or individuation. I may even find that the results I seek arise spontaneously when I least expect them. This sort of searching under a purpose is not a state, nor is it only a process. Though my sudden realization may be called an event, the remembering was not.

One might argue that this mental activity is not different from a computer search. The searching is a process, and its termination, a state. However, the role that purpose and guidance play is neither state nor process. One might further argue that computers search under instructions and not indiscriminately. Thus there is something more to the behavior of a computer, hence a brain, than mere activity. This extension is mistaken, but the mistake ramifies into a change of subject. If pursued further, this response leads inevitably to Darwinian evolution, by which instructions were first inserted, and then perfected in the brain.

The argument would proceed as follows: the critic will insist that the brain is a computer, or at the least, very similar. Computers can perform large undirected surveys, such as playing chess or traversing a huge dataset in response to a search query. In doing so, computers follow a set of instructions, a program, that defines a useful stopping point.

However, the instructions had to be given, and the stopping point desired. Neither are operations of a computer. A likely retort would be that this set of instructions was the product of a preceding set of instructions, themselves in turn the product of another preceding set, and so on. Biologically determined instructions have thus evolved from earlier and much simpler biological instructions. The uniqueness of the doings, which are both given and wanted, are merely terms we have derived from our folk psychology. The thrust of this argument attempts to naturalize the strangeness of such doings in biologically determined propensities.

It seems that an impasse has been reached. Neither worldview can claim support from evidence: both positions are interpretations of evidence. The impasse can be broken. Although a worldview is not received from induction, it is subject to the test of experience. If it contradicts our experience, we may reject it.

Deed of Command

Consider our experience of recollection. This is a deliberate act; therefore its invitation precedes the search itself, logically as well as temporally. The computer does not direct its own labors; it is directed to do so. One search may be directed by the outcome of a prior search. But at some point a deed of command took place that stands outside the computational chain. If the critic now replies that it only seems to lie outside, his argument turns not on the marvels of computation, but on an appeal to Darwinian evolution. Each program, the response goes, has been perfected from antecedents over the course of millions of years, all the way back to the emergence of memory in its most elementary form, whatever that may have been. (It seems there is no obligation to stipulate what that was.) This is a foggy argument because what we seek in understanding memory is not the processing in the brain, but the initiation and carrying out of its search, without resort to the keyboard of conscious instructions. While it is true that memory has a content, it is a content that exists to be searched. Directing that search to suitable occasions and unconsciously choosing the notable moments for review and evaluation is an accomplishment whose logic remains unexplained.

Rephrasing the case of Aunt Bee, when one tries to remember something, particularly when the exact details of the past events are unimportant, one hunts through past experiences by means of an unarticulated theme. When I am moved to reflect on what I might have said to offend her, I do not frame the search in words or in pictures. I simply reflect for something that might explain what I did not know I had done. I cannot, therefore, look through memory traces for any particular exchange between the two of us. Nor do I know when it happened, who else was present, or what was discussed. All I have to go on is who Aunt Bee is: not a picture or a definition, but knowledge that we had spoken together on several occasions. That aside, I have little else other than an understanding of what causes offense. Along the way I may recall some of the subjects that were discussed, or remarks I made. Then I recall that her finances were discussed, a subject I know she abhors. It is fashionable to say that the brain is predisposed to finding patterns, but I am not looking for a pattern. I have no purposive method of assembling episodes from the past for a search of this kind. Since different searches call for different assemblies, no general preparation or storage method for later retrieval is possible. The enterprise is guided semantically. Semantic instructions act according to their meaning; satisfaction is understood rather than defined.

Reciprocity Among Mentalities

The role of consciousness in memory is insignificant. My understanding does not depend, or flow from consciousness. Ultimately I will be able to say what I have come upon in recollection and I will have encountered—possibly in conversation or in reading—a stimulus to remember. But consciousness is not regularly involved in initiating recall. Sometimes we remember without wishing to, or even contrary to our wishes.

We can sometimes, as in the case of Aunt Bee, recall willingly but not by a deliberate command, as we sometimes do in trying to remember something. We even speak of trying hard to remember. Nevertheless, it is something that I do. What I do, it should be noted, is not the bibliothecal process of stacking the shelves where past events are stored, nor is it a Dewey decimal ordering that sorts them according to time and subject. It is the activity of recollection and of sanctioning it under intelligence. There is a supervision going on under an understanding of what is to be found, not under an instruction detailing how to find it.

Instructions can be given the form of a code; understanding cannot be given a form at all.

There is reciprocity among mentalities. They are not, as we know them, sequestered capacities of mind. They cooperate with, correct, and blend into one another, sometimes retaining their independence, sometimes losing it completely. What I know, I remember. What I intend correlates with my beliefs. How I act is unexplainable without beliefs, intentions, hopes, fears, and knowledgeable expectations. In the example just provided, my reason for remembering shaped what the remembering was like. I wished to ascertain from memory what I did not already understand: hence, recall became an instrument of learning.

In a different case, the relationship between knowledge and memory might be reversed. For example, after a long friendship with Timothy, I have come to admire his honesty and lack of guile. But, when I first met him, I formed an unflattering opinion, one that took a long time to correct. I might reflect upon our first meetings to ascertain what it was that misled me. I now know what he is like, thus I shall endeavor only to make out what gave me the wrong impression.

This may be a reverie rather than a study of the past. But it is, nevertheless, an effort to remember and to correct, not in its pictorial accuracy, but the interpretations I formed at the time. My memory will not change what I thought, but it will reveal what led me astray. I cannot see that this search of the past, which must begin like the prior example, has a preliminary stage that might be found in neural activity, according to which the recollection is initiated and directed. The inexpressible aspect is the targeting without instructions.

I have no instructions to give and there is no one to receive them from me.

However, confining the discussion solely to memory would be perverse. Brain research has reached out to many different mentalities—belief, emotion, trust, learning, and so on—evoking and elaborating conceptual errors according to kind. Correcting its perversity is beyond the scope of this brief essay, save for one final incursion.

Ubiquitous Memory

Eichenbaum introduced his discussion of the hippocampus, the serial order of code staging and the numbers of neurons engaged in each stage, with the example of remembering a professional meeting. But he did not explain why such memories proceed to the hippocampus in the first place, nor did he explain how the brain classifies the present so as to be used as the past in the future.

Memory is everywhere in the mind. Which is at the same time the brain, is it not? In terms of what has been called declarative memory, we can see that memory is much vaster than the usual examples suggest. If I walk across the room or drive to the store, must I not remember where I have been? If I speak or write, must I not remember the words and grammar of the language in which I do so?

One good use of the verb to know is to have learned and not forgotten. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that to know is, in part, to remember. Do I not recall who people are without having to remember some prior occasion on which I have seen them? We remember that birds fly, that fish swim, the direction that faucets turn, and the difference between a hammer and a wrench. There is much, much more we remember. Is this brief list merely specifying what we know and therefore remember? It is hard to declare borders.

To understand how difficult it is to grasp the scope of memory, consider what dementia deprives us of. We might forget who people are, who we are, what we are saying, or where we are going. But, conversely, we do not forget the language we speak, or the fact that language is spoken.

These remarks raise a question of definition. But this is not an arbitrary question that can be solved by convention or fiat. It is a question that belongs to the mind, and one we should expect brain research to help us with.

It is odd that brain research follows convention so slavishly. These sorts of remembering are not catalogs into which the past is bundled. They reflect enterprises in which we are engaged. They are knowable, not just known.

This essay disavows a kind of answer to these questions that has a history of many forms. The structure is as follows: sum up observations and call an aggregate the totality. Examples easily come to mind. Operationalism, a once popular theory, is the view that the physical properties known to science are, or may be regarded as, no more than the measurement results, meter readings, and chemical reactions by which we know them. Functionalism, still faintly alive, is the theory that mentalities, seemingly mysterious and inaccessible, are no more than their manifestations in words and deeds. Linguistic philosophy, particularly Wittgensteinian, is the view that philosophical problems, such as those surrounding memory, are resolved by the analysis of ordinary language in which their difficulties dissolve.

I have argued that mentalities, those mental accomplishments that will be the subject of further study by the BRAIN Initiative and the HBP, are known to us in our experience. But, this should not be misconstrued as support for a claim that the experiences form an aggregate that is the totality of mentalities. We have memory, belief, intention, and so forth, but they are not understood in terms of the language of materialism. Hence they should not be forced into its dimensions.

So, what dimensions are left? The answer is whatever we can, on the basis of experience, evidence, and suitable theoretical construction, employ to discipline our comprehension of them.

The great mistake behind materialism is its predetermination of what there is. There is nothing that answers to what there is. We have found that the mind does not belong to physics, nor does it to biology; each may shed light on our understanding, but neither may claim hegemony.

A doctrinal commitment to materialism is evident in both the BRAIN Initiative and the HBP. It is doctrinal because materialism is not a theory supported by facts. It is a commitment because materialism is all that is left over once the other side of dualism is rejected. No one among modern scientists or philosophers subscribes to the other side of dualism.

It is materialism or nothing.

The correct choice is nothing.

  1. Announced in April 2013, the BRAIN Initiative is a collaborative effort between US government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, amongst others. The goal of the initiative is
    to discover the patterns of neural activity and underlying circuit mechanisms that mediate mental and behavioral processes, including perception, memory, learning, planning, emotion, and complex thought[.]
    The BRAIN Initiative, “BRAIN 2025: A Scientific Vision.” 
  2. National Institutes of Health, Advisory Committee to the NIH Director Interim Report: Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Working Group (2013): 8. 
  3. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the HBP is a ten-year research project established in 2013. The project is directed by the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne and funded in large part by the European Union. The goal of the project is to
    translate these prospects [advances in neuroscience, computing, and medicine] into reality, catalysing a global collaborative effort to integrate neuroscience data from around the world, to understand the human brain and its diseases, and ultimately to emulate its computational capabilities.
    Human Brain Project, “Vision.” 
  4. Human Brain Project, “HBP Impact.” 
  5. This essay does not advocate the acceptance of this terminology. 
  6. Howard Eichenbaum, “Hippocampus: Cognitive Processes and Neural Representations that Underlie Declarative Memory,” Neuron 44, no. 1 (2004): 109. 
  7. Howard Eichenbaum, “Hippocampus: Cognitive Processes and Neural Representations that Underlie Declarative Memory,” Neuron 44, no. 1 (2004): 109. 
  8. Howard Eichenbaum, “Hippocampus: Cognitive Processes and Neural Representations that Underlie Declarative Memory,” Neuron 44, no. 1 (2004): 110. 
  9. Claude E. Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” The Bell System Technical Journal (1948): 379–423, 623–56.