Read less, think more

Looking for Spinoza: joy, sorrow and the feeling brain

Antonio Damasio <em>William Heinemann, 355p

Creatures with minds also have brains, and damage to the brain usually - though not always - brings damage to the mind. Clearly, then, brain and mind are closely connected, and a study of the brain and its functions should cast light on our mental states. This thought, and the scientific enterprise inspired by it, have made Antonio Damasio's reputation. Writing clearly, easily and sympathetically, he draws on the rapidly growing scientific literature to persuade his reader that brain science has not only advanced to such an extent that we can now understand many of the brain's capacities (which is true), but that it has also begun to penetrate the mystery of consciousness and to identify the circuits and synapses where the I resides (which is false).

The problem, as I see it, is that I see the problem but my brain does not. However much we understand the connections that lead from the thing observed to the behaviour that is caused by it, we cannot translate from the third-person to the first-person case. Light from the approaching bull falls on Roger's retina; the stimulus is recorded in his cortex; signals are sent from there to Roger's limbs and soon they are in motion, saving for the time being this inconvenient bundle of neurones. But what light does that cast on Roger's words when he says "I was afraid, but only moderately so, and besides Geoff's bull is not so very dangerous"?

Damasio thinks he can untangle this difficulty by distinguishing the emotion (fear), which is an observable state of the organism, from the feeling (the "I" state that prompts the confession). The first is publicly observable, the second is private, observable to me alone. But then, who or what am I? Is it exactly right, to say that I observe my inner processes? And if I observe them, how can the I be observed? Wittgenstein repeatedly warns us that the grammar of the first-person case is misleading and - in his exquisite "private language" argument - shows that the story about private states, inner processes and the observing self is just that: a story. Imagine a community of people who never told themselves this story. What would they lack, and what, if anything, would they have failed to notice?

To put the point another way: the problem of consciousness is not a scientific but a conceptual problem, and no amount of experiment or theory will solve it. When Damasio writes of "feelings becoming known to the self within the organism that possesses them" he assumes a distinction between having a feeling and knowing it, and another between the organism and the "self within". But it is philosophy, not science, that foists these distinctions upon him, and bad philosophy, too.

Damasio takes Spinoza as his authority, given that Spinoza saw mind and body as inextricably connected - indeed, as one and the same. But Spinoza's theory of the mind cannot be detached from the rest of his metaphysics, which tells us that everything has a mind, including the stone that Dr Johnson kicked in the vain attempt to refute Bishop Berkeley, so producing a pain in Johnson's toe, but no pain in the stone. Moreover, there is no room in Spinoza's philosophy for the "self", and his purported solution to the mind-body problem bequeathed by Descartes becomes an equally intransigent "God-World" problem that can barely be translated from the arcane language in which it is expounded.

This is not to say that Damasio's book is without interest. On the contrary, it contains elegant summaries of important empirical research. However, I read his book in a state of increasing protest against the encroaching metaphors, and a desire to send him running back to the laboratory with instructions to read less and think more. His distinction between feelings and emotions is a clear instance of the way in which metaphors ruin science, the metaphor in this case being that contained in the word "representation". According to Damasio, emotions become feelings when the brain "represents" them in that part which is devoted to this peculiar activity. They are then translated from the realm of spontaneous response to the realm of reflection, so permitting reason to get to work on them, controlling, inhibiting and enhancing their effect. And this reminds one of Spinoza, who believed that emotions could be "emended" from passions that govern us to actions that we govern, by obtaining a "more adequate" idea of their nature and cause.

The problem is that the brain does not literally represent emotions - as Shakespeare represents Hamlet's death wish, or Titian the desire of Venus and the revulsion of Adonis. If I press soft wax on the bark of a tree it acquires an impression from which the contours of the bark can be reconstructed. Brain signals convey impressions of objects in a similar way. But the brain (or the "self" within it) no more observes the brain signals that are transmitted to it than it observes the light signals on the retina. Observation is another name for the process, described, however, in the "language of the mind", which is the very language that the scientist should strive to dispense with.

There are important ideas in Damasio's book, which is why I complain about the amateurish philosophy that conceals them. His distinction between emotions and feelings owes more to William James than Spinoza, and gains nothing much from either. Ignore it, however, and another and far more important aspect of Spinoza can be discerned: the theory that the emotional life of humans, as of other animals, is a functional part of their "striving to be" or (as Spinoza termed it) their conatus. Ever since the work of Walter Cannon on the "fight or flight" response, and that of Hans Selye on the general adaptation syndrome, it has been clear that fear, anger and other basic emotions are devices for restoring equilibrium, and work on animals has isolated the axis in the central nervous system that is activated when these emotions occur. The higher emotions, too - those like embarrassment, shame, tenderness and angst, of which only a self-conscious being is capable - form part of the homeostatic system. And looking at emotions in this way (Spinoza's way) we can see how to improve and discipline them. On this subject, Damasio has important things to say. Rare among Spinoza scholars, he has also seen that the great philosopher's political theory is an extension of the conatus idea. The good state, for Spinoza, is not one aimed at producing the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but one whose institutions serve to maintain it in being, and to restore equilibrium in any crisis. If you think of politics in this way you begin to realise how difficult it is, and how easily it is disrupted by the mad enthusiasms of idealists, utopians and nincompoops.

Roger Scruton is the author of Spinoza: a very short introduction (Oxford University Press)