The philosopher who says we are a bundle of neurons

Ben asked:

The philosopher who best represents the idea that we are a bundle of neurons is probably who?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Some preliminary remarks.

I take it that ‘we’ refers to each of us as an individual.

When I speak of ‘you’ or ‘I’ I could be referring to:

* a human being (member of the species Homo sapiens)

* a self (an inner mental presence which every normal adult human feels she is or has at any waking moment)

* a person (mental entity with psychological connectedness through time; however, the word is also sometimes used as a synonym for ‘self’ or for ‘human being’).

Clearly an adult human being is not a bundle of neurons (nerve cells), but does include exactly that (a brain) as part of itself.

Neither a self nor a person, being a mental entity, is a bundle of neurons either, but it’s widely accepted that they,

* arise from or

* equate to or, at very least,

* require

the activity of a brain.

So, whilst nobody quite says we are bundles of neurons, there are those who say a self is a ‘bundle of perceptions’, and those who say a self is the behaviour of ‘a pack of neurons’.

Hume famously wrote that minds or selves or persons (he used these words loosely and interchangeably) are ‘nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions’ (by ‘perceptions’ he meant what we call ‘experiences’). He could find no evident connexion between successive, fleeting bundles of experience ie no evidence of a persisting ‘self’ (obviously if we say the connexion is that each introspected bundle is mine we beg the question as to a persisting self). This Transience View of mental selves was later held by William James and is popular today, a notable advocate being Galen Strawson, and is a view held by some Buddhists. Others, including other Buddhists, think that such fleeting mental entities don’t deserve the status of ‘selves’ (as compared with the robustly substantial, persisting, traditional ‘soul’) and so think the self is an illusion. I prefer to think of them as virtual selves constructed anew, moment by moment, by a brain.

The late great scientist Francis Crick introduces his popular brain science book The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994) as follows:

”You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells… As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons’.’

So Hume, James, Strawson the Younger, Buddha, Crick and Alice in Wonderland are on your case.

Finally, the dualistic view that the ‘self’ is a persisting non-material substance, the ‘res cogitans’ of Descartes, the ‘soul’ of Christianity, distinct from the body, is less popular than it was, especially among philosophers and scientists.

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