Gastbeitrag von Philipp Klar: „Reminiscence of Cartesianism in cognitive neuroscience – or how to overcome the mind-body problem?“
Es ist mir eine außerordentlich große Ehre und Freude, dass es mir endlich mal gelungen ist, meinen langjährigen „Freund der Philosophien„ und fachwissenschaftlichen Wegbegleiter dazu zu bewegen einen Essay für meine Seite zu schreiben. Philipp Klar studiert Translationale Neurowissenschaften an der HHU Düsseldorf und arbeitet in diesem Zusammenhang viel mit bildgebenden Verfahren, wie z. B. fMRI. Sein Forschungsthema ist das Bewusstsein und er versucht in seinen Studien-Projekten zu verstehen, wie neurophysiologische Prozesse des Gehirns unser Bewusstsein bzw. Erleben ermöglichen.
Aus diesem Grunde hatte er auch mich schon des Häufigeren mit den neuesten, empirischen Daten und Erkenntnissen von der „Forschungsfront“ der kognitiven Neurowissenschaften versorgt, damit meine Essays ein bisschen mehr „Fleisch in die Töpfe“ bekommen. Daher freue ich mich sehr, dass Philipp sich bereit erklärt hat, seine Sicht der Dinge hinsichtlich des „latenten Cartesianismus in kognitiven Neurowissenschaften“ und die Möglichkeiten dieses scheinbare „Geist-Körper-Problem„ zu überwinden, hier einmal darzustellen. Der Artikel ist in englischer Sprache verfasst. Wem es aber mehr Freude macht, ihn in einer anderen Sprache zu lesen, kann gerne meinen „Translate>>“-Button verwenden. Er übersetzt auch schon ganz leidlich z. B. ins Deutsche. Ich übergebe aber nun lieber mal das Wort an Philipp:
„Liebe Freunde der Philosophie und des Bewusstseins. Nachfolgend möchte ich euch eine kurze Übersicht vorstellen, welche das bestehende latent cartesianische Paradigma in den kognitiven Neurowissenschaften und der Philosophie des Geistes anreißt. Zudem versuche ich hiermit eine alternative theoretische Konzeption vorzustellen. Ich hoffe, dass der Artikel halbwegs interessant ist und lade euch dazu ein alles in unserer gewohnten Manier zu kritisieren, damit mir mein eigener Unsinn klar wird. Viel Spaß“.
„Reminiscence of Cartesianism in cognitive neuroscience – or how to overcome the mind-body problem?“
The principal aim of cognitive neuroscience is to link the mind and the brain. Paradigmatically, cognitive neuroscience raises the question of how cognitive functions, such as attention, memory, or perception, are processed and represented in the brain. Since its emergence in the early 1990s, cognitive neuroscience has shed results on these questions. However, a fundamental link between our conscious experience and the nervous system is still missing. Even after more than 30 years of research, the relationship between consciousness and the nervous system remains a mystery. First, my mini-review suggests that a latent form of Cartesianism still sets an implicit framework in which cognitive neuroscience operates. Second, I argue that a shift in our current vantage point from the brain to the brain’s relationship with the body and the environment is required. Such a broader framework may open up new possibilities regarding theoretical conceptualizations of the brain and its role in establishing phenomenal experience, that is, in leaving the mind-body problem behind.
1 Current research designs and presuppositions in cognitive neuroscience: task-based and resting-state research designs
The advancing development of neuroimaging in the last three decades, especially since the dawn of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in 1990 to 1992 (Bandettini, Wong, Hinks, Tikofsky, and Hyde 1992; Kwong, Belliveau, Chesler, Goldberg, Weisskoff, Poncelet, Kennedy, Hoppel, Cohen, and Turner 1992; Ogawa, Tank, Menon, Ellermann, Kim, Merkle, and Ugurbil 1992), led to an emerging novel domain in brain research. This novel domain merges cognitive psychology with neuroscience, namely, cognitive neuroscience (Gazzaniga, Ivry, and Mangun 2018; Passingham 2016). Today, cognitive neuroscience is the leading research field aiming to converge the mind or cognitive functions, including behavior, with the brain’s neuronal activity.
Traditionally, task-based research designs set the standard methodological paradigm in fMRI. While lying in the scanner, the subject has to perform a task during which the blood-oxygenation-level-dependent (BOLD) contrast, captured via the MRI machine, measures systematic task-related BOLD changes. These task-related BOLD increases or decreases allow the comparison to other tasks or to the baseline level of the brain’s activity. Such research paradigm is a partial reminiscence of behaviorism: the measured brain’s activity was supposed to reflect a passive response to exteroceptive input provided by the environment, e.g., to visual or auditory stimuli by the respective task. In this framework, the brain represents a passive or reflexive organ to the environment (Raichle 2015). Notably, the discovery of the default-mode-network (DMN) in 2001, reflecting the brain’s intrinsic spontaneous activity (Raichle, MacLeod, Snyder, Powers, Gusnard, and Shulman 2001), led to a vast amount of resting-state research studies. The first resting-state fMRI study by Biswal and colleagues, utilizing functional connectivity at rest, already occurred in 1995 (Biswal et al. 1995). A broader application and acceptance of resting-state fMRI and the role of the brain’s spontaneous activity still lagged years behind.
Contrary to task-based research designs, where the investigation follows task-evoked or stimulus-induced activity of the brain in response to extrinsic stimuli, resting-state studies aim to understand the brain’s constantly ongoing intrinsic spontaneous activity. Here, in addition to the passive-reflexive side of the brain, an active side of the brain’s intrinsic functional architecture and organization comes into play. What is ultimately measured even in task-based designs, precisely stimulus-induced or task-evoked activity, is the result and hybrid mixture of a dynamic interaction between the intrinsic spontaneous activity and extrinsic stimuli (Boly, Balteau, Schnakers, Degueldre, Moonen et al. 2007; Deco, Jirsa, and McIntosh 2013; Fox, Snyder, Vincent, and Raichle 2007; He 2013; Huang, Zhang, Longtin, Dumont, Duncan, Pokorny et al. 2017; Raichle 2015). Subjects are instructed to lie in the scanner without thinking of anything in particular in one of three possible conditions: (1) eyes open, (2) eyes closed, or (3) eyes open focusing on a fixation cross. The third option prevents subjects from falling asleep, improving the reliability of resting-state studies since the brain’s resting-state networks (RSN) dynamics change in sleep (Bijsterbosch, Smith, and Beckmann 2017).
Even though the research on the brain’s spontaneous activity offers comprehensive information for several fields of interest, e.g., regarding the brain’s intrinsic functional architecture (functional and effective connectivity) (Cole, Smith, & Beckmann 2010), the detection of biomarkers for neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders (Castellanos, Di Martino, Craddock, Metha, and Milham 2013), or how it shapes stimulus-induced or task-evoked activity (Sadaghiani, Hesselmann, Friston, and Kleinschmidt 2010), its connection to a general model of the brain’s function concerning consciousness was neglected within parts of cognitive neuroscience until recently. Why was the fundamental role of the brain’s intrinsic spontaneous activity in relation to both the body and the environment for consciousness widely ignored in cognitive neuroscience? The answer to this question may lie in the current crypto-cartesian framework in cognitive neuroscience. This theoretical or conceptual framework still dominates the perspective on the brain and its relation to consciousness, both in philosophy of mind and cognitive neuroscience.
2 A wide-spread framework in cognitive neuroscience: implicit presuppositions and their revision
Even though cognitive neuroscience is an empirical science, principally devoted to scientific research methodology, it operates with implicit and unquestioned presuppositions often taken for granted when interpreting its data and forming theories of perception and consciousness. These presuppositions especially come and are influenced by western philosophy, notably from Descartes’ dualism (1641/1993), and they can be subsumed under three main points:
It is the brain’s neuronal activity and information processing that causes consciousness;
the brain’s function is information processing to internally represent the world; and
consciousness, therefore, is located within the brain.
Together, these three presuppositions converge into the current widespread neuro-constructivist framework in cognitive neuroscience (Bear, Connors, and Paradiso 2016; Damasio 1999, 2010; Gazzaniga 2000; Gazzaniga, Ivry, and Mangun 2018; Kandel, Schwartz, Jessell, Siegelbaum, and Hudspeth 2012; LeDoux 2003). Despite the advancement of cognitive neuroscience since its introduction three decades ago, consciousness and its linkage to the brain remain a mystery, although several theories of consciousness, such as the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) (Tononi, Boly, Massimini, and Koch 2016), Global Neuronal Workspace Theory (GNWT) (Dehaene, Changeux, and Naccache 2011), Operational Space-Time Theory (OST) (Fingelkurts, Fingelkurts, and Neves 2010), and the Temporo-Spatial Theory of Consciousness (TTC) (Northoff and Huang 2017) arose. Today, cognitive neuroscience is able to correlate neuronal activity with cognitive features and behavior (Newman 2019; Uttal 2011). Inferences to correlations between cognition and the brain are possible on one side via non-invasive neuroimaging methods like electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), as well as on the other side via non-invasive brain stimulation methods like transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) or transcranial electrical stimulation (tES) amongst others. The linkage to the first-person perspective’s phenomenal experience, as reflected by phenomenology in particular, yet beyond genuine interdisciplinary integration into the field.
An alternative to the three presuppositions listed above that dominate cognitive neuroscience today is a shift from its current neo-Cartesian framework (Bennet & Hacker, 2003; Fuchs, 2018), one that still implicitly separates mind and brain/body so that it can only account for correlations, to a novel approach. Such framework shift reaches beyond the brain, and the current neurobiological reductionism, insofar as it sets the brain and its linkage to consciousness in a broader context. This broader context also contains the body and the world for the constitution of consciousness. In this new framework, consciousness is seen as a structure, interaction, sensorimotor coupling, or process between the world and the brain, namely, world-brain relation (Northoff 2018). Cognitive neuroscience’s three presuppositions of neurobiological reductionism and neuro-constructivism are then exchanged as follows by a genuine neurophilosophical approach:
Transformation replaces causality: the brain’s neuronal activity and its interaction with the body and the world transforms into consciousness;
the function of the brain’s ongoing spontaneous activity is to constantly align or couple the organism to the world; and
location is exchanged with structure/relation/interaction/coupling/process: consciousness, therefore, is a relational phenomenon between the environment and the organism.
Transformation instead of causality (1) undermines the frequent notion in cognitive neuroscience and philosophy of mind that consciousness is special and somewhat separated from the rest of the “outer” physical world. The latter stance by cognitive neuroscience and philosophy of mind becomes manifest in the notion that consciousness appears to be one entity, add-on, or an “inner world” represented by and in the brain, precisely in addition to the so-called “underlying” neuronal activity. Even though today’s cognitive neuroscience rejects ontological cartesian dualism, it remains in the inside (cognition/mind/consciousness)-outside (the brain, body, and the world) distinction. The philosophical mind-body problem, therefore, reappears in cognitive neuroscience, paradigmatically in the so prevalent binding problem that occurs everywhere in the brain. Such neuro-constructivism presents a neo-Cartesianism, elucidated and criticized by scientists and philosophers from various fields (Bennett und Hacker 2003, 2012; Friston, Wiese, and Hobson 2020; Fuchs 2018; Hacker 2010; Northoff, Wainio-Theberge, and Evers 2020; Vacariu 2005, 2016). The brain’s role in representing and constructing the world inside an internal “conscious realm” is a nonsensical combination of ontological materialism with idealistic epistemology by current cognitive neuroscience (Hacker, 2010; Fuchs, 2018; Varela, 1996; Varela et al., 2017).
The unidirectional causation of consciousness by the brain’s neuronal activity, hence implying two sides of phenomena, is replaced by transformation as Northoff et al. (2019) point out: “Mental features are here supposed to reflect the dynamics of time and space itself rather than a specific function like integration or access. In short neuronal dynamics are mental dynamics. No causal relationship is thus necessary anymore to connect neuronal and mental features – the dynamics of space and time provide an intrinsic and non-causal neuro-mental relationship”. Shortly after the publication of the previously cited article, Karl Friston (2020) replied: “As someone who views the physics of life through the lens of Langevin dynamics and pullback attractors, the notion that temporo-spatial dynamics furnishes the “common currency” of neuronal and mental features sounds perfectly tenable” and that “This is a splendidly monistic assertion; namely, that mental (i.e., Cartesian res cogitans) and neuronal (i.e., res extensa) processes are the same thing”.
The function of the world’s representation and construction by the brain’s task-evoked activity is exchanged by (2) the fundamental role of the brain’s ongoing spontaneous activity and its alignment with the world. The spontaneous activity exhibits intrinsic temporo-spatial dynamics that continuously align to spatiotemporal configurations of extrinsic intero- and exteroceptive stimuli, respectively from the body and the environment. This conjunction of the brain’s intrinsic activity with extrinsic stimuli results in the measured task-evoked activity, which consists of a hybrid mixture of the brain’s pre-existing activity and the world’s input. The dynamic temporo-spatial interaction between both ultimately yields consciousness and mental/cognitive features.
The possibility of consciousness consequently relies on a (3) functional relationship between the world, i.e., extrinsic stimuli, and the constantly succeeding alignment of the brain’s temporo-spatial dynamics to the former, i.e., provided by its ever-lasting spontaneous activity. Since the brain’s neuronal activity is linked with the world, it is intrinsically neuro-ecological insofar as a healthy and functioning brain is a world-brain relation (Northoff 2016, 2018, 2019). A roughly similar notion of enactivism, i.e., the embodiment and embeddedness of experience and behavior in the intrinsical sensorimotor coupling between the organism and the world, was already empirically and theoretically exemplified in Francisco Varela’s Neurophenomenology over three decades ago (Varela 1996; Varela et al. 1991/2017). This approach aims to empirically investigate the brain’s temporo-spatial dynamics of its spontaneous activity in interaction with the world. The localization of consciousness in the brain is, therefore, replaced by the sensorimotor coupling or process insofar as consciousness presents a structural phenomenon between the brain, body, and the environment (world). Even the concept of consciousness finally becomes superfluous, as the structural process between the organism and the world is the phenomenal experience. The living organism, the subject, represents not a decoupled entity from the rest of the environment, but as Merleau-Ponty stated “subject and object are two abstract moments of a unique structure which is presence and that “[….] there is no ‘inner man,’ man is in and toward the world, and it is in the world that he knows himself” (Merleau-Ponty 1962/2002). After all, we always experience ourselves in a relationship to and within the world.
After briefly introducing two principal research designs in fMRI, namely task-based and resting-state paradigms, and three presuppositions by cognitive neuroscience and philosophy of mind about consciousness concerning their relation to the brain, I suggest changing our current vantage point from within the brain to a broader context. This wider framework was exemplified by thee alternative concepts about the brain’s role in cognition; these three alternatives avoid deep metaphysical presuppositions that still rule cognitive neuroscience today. Such a broader framework conceives the brain in relation to the body and the world. This dynamic coupling between the organism and the environment may ultimately shape and makes possible our experience and behavior. Taking such a shift from a narrow to a broader framework could open up the possibility of intrinsically linking the brain with the body and environment on dynamic grounds. Mere correlational relationships between cognitive features, or abstractly speaking mind and brain, as currently prevalent in cognitive neuroscience, are then overcome. Instead of asking how the mind or consciousness in general, or cognitive functions in particular, are implemented in the brain, the more appropriate question would be to ask how spatiotemporal dynamics of the nervous system as a whole interact with the world. It is this structural process that potentially constitutes our experience. Let us leave the mind-body problem behind and investigate how the brain’s intrinsic activity organizes its spatiotemporal dynamics and aligns with the environment to constitute our daily experiential life-world.
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© Einleitung: Dirk Boucsein, Text: Philipp Klar