The mereological error in psychology: are you feeling it or is your brain doing it?

When you think of something that brings you back to your memories of the past, Are you thinking or is your brain doing it? Focusing your attention on mental phenomena as internalized as memories can tell us that whatever you are doing right now is limited to internal activity, which is carried out by the nervous system.

But on the other hand, could we not say that it is always the brain that thinks and feels, since all our mental life is linked to it? We don’t have to stick to what happens when we remember: when we talk to someone, the brain turns concepts into words, right? In fact, one could even say that it is not the whole brain, but a part of it, which thinks and plans: what the prefrontal cortex does is not the same as what the medulla oblongata does. .

If these questions have led you to think that your real ‘I’ is really your brain enclosed in a set of muscles and bones, just like a machinist drives a taxi train, many philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists will tell you that you fell into this it is known as a mereological error. Let’s move on to the corresponding question.

What is the mereological error?

If the study of mental and brain processes is a very complicated thing, it does not mean that it is impossible. We now have a level of technology that allows us to keep systematic records of nervous activity and behavior, making lines of research that a few decades ago seemed like science fiction stories today a reality. .

However, many philosophers will say that the revolution in technological progress that we experienced in the second half of the twentieth century and in what we experienced in the twenty-first century was not accompanied by a revolution of ideas comparable to the previous one; at least in terms of how we approach human brain function and behavior. Many times we stumble upon something that some philosophers have dubbed a mereological error.

this concept was led by philosopher Peter Hacker and neuroscientist Maxwell Bennett which, is his work Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, pointed out a mistake that they believed had been made by most researchers in the brain and in the field of psychology: to completely confuse the game. For example, saying that the brain thinks, chooses, values, etc.

From the point of view of these two authors, the way in which both people at the popular level and many researchers in the scientific field conceive of mental processes is not much different from those who believe in a soul who, from somewhere in the world. brain, governs the body. Thus, the mereological error is not technically an error because it does not stem from a faulty argument (although this is in the broadest sense of the term), but from a failure to assign a subject. to a predicate.

Thus, to fall into the mereological error is to attribute to the brain, or to certain parts of it, properties and actions which are actually performed by people. Just as it would be absurd to say that it is not the falcon but its wings that fly, it would be misleading to say that the brain thinks, reflects or decides. We often get carried away by these assumptions simply because it is easier for us to understand how the mind works if we get carried away by reductionism, And not because scientific research has shown that this set of organs reason or think independently from the rest of the body.

That is to say, the mereological error consists in understanding the human mind in a very similar way to what philosophers like René Descartes did to explain what the psyche appealing to the spiritual and the divine is. . This is a deeply rooted error.

    From Cartesian dualism to metaphysical monism

    The study of the brain has been marked for centuries by dualism, that is to say the belief that reality is composed of two substances, matter and spirit, radically differentiated. It is an intuitive belief, because it is easy to consider that there is a clear division between one’s own state of consciousness and almost everything else, “the outside”, is very simple.

    In the 17th century, René Descartes created a philosophical system which formalized the relationship between body and mind; as he understood this relationship. So the mind, the spiritual, would be seated in the pineal gland of the brain, and from there it would govern the actions of the body. The precedent for mereological error was therefore present from the start of the formalization of the scientific study of the brain, and of course it affected psychology and philosophy.

    However, openly declared dualism did not last forever: already in the twentieth century, monist approaches, according to which everything is matter in motion, acquired a hegemonic status. Philosophers and researchers who point to the existence of mereological error as a recurring problem suggest that this generation of researchers he continued to treat the brain as if it were synonymous with soul or, rather, as if he was a miniature person controlling the rest of the organism. This is why the mereological fallacy is also called the homunculus fallacy: it reduces human properties to small, mysterious entities that supposedly inhabit a corner of our head.

    So, although dualism was apparently rejected, in practice it was still considered that the brain or its parts could be understood as an essence to which we ascribe our identity. The monists used ideas based on metaphysics to rename the soul and baptize it as “brain”, “frontal lobe”, etc.

      Introspection can lead us to identification with the brain. | Giovanni Bellini

      The consequences of the mereological error

      Brain error can be understood as a misuse of language when talking about the reality of mental processes and the human condition. It is no coincidence that Peter Hacker is a follower of the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher known to have argued that failures of philosophy are in fact inappropriate uses of language. However, falling into this error means more than not speaking correctly.

      A linguistic error which can have consequences beyond the simple confusion of terms is, for example, look for parts of the brain responsible for thinking or making decisions, Which usually leads to analyzing smaller and smaller areas of the brain. Let us remember that this, taking into account the existence of the mereological error, would amount to attributing to the axis of the windmills the property of moving the blades.

      Also, this tendency is a way of continuing to believe in something very similar to the soul without calling it by that name. As a result, the belief that there is an essence from which our actions and decisions are born remains intact, and the body / mind dualism, or rejection of the idea that we are not fundamentally different from any other. animal, stay here in disguise. .

        A frequent, automatic and unconscious error

        The concept of mereological error has not been unanimously accepted by neuroscientists or philosophers of the mind. John Searle and Daniel Dennett, for example, criticized this. The second, for example, states that it is possible to speak of “partial” actions and intentions and to attribute them to the brain and its subsystems, and thus to broaden the meaning of the terms “thinking” or “feel”. This is not the case. harmful. It is a point of view engaged in pragmatism while reducing the importance of the negative consequences of the mereological error.

        Also, you may come to think that when you talk about the brain outside of the realm of science, whether in everyday life or in awareness, it is very difficult to talk about how the brain works without doing it because we would be doing it on. people. This made it a relatively little-known idea: it describes something we’ve been doing for centuries that we don’t normally consider as a problem that affects us. Essentialism is something very attractive when it comes to explaining all kinds of phenomena, and if we can reduce the causes of something to something clearly identifiable and isolated from the rest, we usually do so unless we are careful.

        At the moment, therefore, it is difficult to find a way to talk about the mechanisms of the nervous system without automatically falling and noticing it in error. mereological. Doing so requires entering into preambles that few outreach initiatives can resist, and having experience and training in philosophy and neuroscience that few can afford. However, this does not mean that it is better to forget the fact that this problem is still there, that it is important to take it into account both in research and in related faculties of psychology and philosophy, and that metaphors for how it works the brain should take them as such.

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