In ‘Start of the Week‘ on BBC Radio 4, Tom Sutcliff discussed this morning the importance of uncertainty and failure. His interlocutor contrasted aviation, which conscientiously registers and investigates every mistake committed by pilots and every fault detected in the aircraft, and thus constantly improves its performance and safety, with medicine, where mistakes and failures are covered up. Asked what may be the reason for the difference between the two, Tom Sutcliff’s interlocutor pointed out that pilots are encouraged to report mistakes and failures, whereas doctors fear litigation and the negative effect that their mistakes might have on their career.
Listening, I could not help thinking of universities. Every Vice-Chancellor’s duty towards his fee-paying students is to get the best teachers the money available to him can buy. The easiest way to satisfy this duty is to pretend that they have got the best people. This situation is particularly poignant considering Oxford and Cambridge Universities.
Two years ago I asked Professor Bone, the Master of Balliol, for permission to present at Balliol a lecture on ‘Human Spiritual Nature and the X of Neurophysiologists’. He replied: ’It is not I fear possible to give you a platform in Balliol.’ How is it possible that my conception of the non-corporeal part of our being, which I view in the light of neurophysiology, cannot be discussed at Balliol?
David Parker, a Cambridge neurophysiologist, wrote in response to my ‘Notes on the relevance of neurophysiology to self-knowledge’ (see my July posts): ‘What we know about the brain now is sufficient to offer, in principle, a physiological account of consciousness.’ I contended that there must be a non-corporeal entity that transforms what goes on in the brain into what we experience. David asked: ‘Why do you say that consciousness has to be non-corporeal?’ I answered: ‘Aristotle may help; he notes that topos (place/space) has three dimensions, length, breadth and depth, by which all body is defined. He argues that the place cannot be body; for if it were, there would be two bodies in the same place (Physics, 209a6-7), but two bodies cannot be at one and the same place (213b20). Everything that neurophysiology has so far detected and can ever detect in the brain corresponds to Aristotle’s notion of body: where is neuron A, there cannot be neuron B, where is a vesicle A containing neurotransmitter ‘a’, there cannot be a vesicle B containing the same (or different) kind of neurotransmitter. The action potential generated at the axon hillock propagates as a wave along the axon, the part of the axon that has just fired is unresponsive until the action potential is safely out of range. Action potential A must run its course before action potential B can be generated. When I look out of the window, I can see trees with their branches, a church and a few houses discernible behind the trees, Cam Peak in the distance, the blue sky-scape with the white clouds – all this is in space, all this is real. In so far as I see it, it all is composed in my brain on the basis of the neural structures inside the brain. Since what I can see in space around me – in my head – is real, in three dimensions, it cannot be corporeal, for in my brain there is no space for such corporeal structures.’ (I slightly revised the text; see ‘A provisional reply to David Parker’, July 31)
On August 5 David specified: ‘Assuming a physicalist view, consciousness would arise from the activity of the existing infrastructure of the brain, and would be represented in the information relayed between different areas of the brain, either reduced to the anatomy and physiology of the brain in a classical mechanistic sense, or an emergent effect (e.g. field effects) that arises from the summed activity of many components and can in turn influence them, or a non-algorithmic, possibly quantum effect, as suggested by Penrose /Lucas/ Hammerhof (which is debated but is contentious to say the least).’
My interest in self-knowledge and neurophysiology is intimately connected to my work on recording the Ancient Greeks, and I cannot see how any part of it can be ‘reduced to the anatomy and physiology of the brain in a classical mechanistic sense’. At present I am recording Homer. To do the recording, I must read the text; everything about it – the shapes of the Greek letters, to begin with – is completely different from anything that can be found in the brain. How can the letters be reduced to the firing of action potentials in neurons, production and action of neural transmitters on synapses, and formation of neural circuits – all of which is nonetheless essential in making it possible for me to see the letters? Alternatively, can the activity of recording the Greeks be viewed as ‘an emergent effect (e.g. field effects) that arises from the summed activity of many components’?
Querying this alternative neurophysiological solution, let me point to some of the components involved in recording Homer. To begin with, I read the text in silence. My visual cortex and my long term memory must be involved in this stage. Concerning the latter I wrote in ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ on my website: ‘Concerning speech, the most important task which the nervous system must perform is long retention and storage of words. The biochemical activities in neural synapses are essentially fluid, subject to many influences and undergoing constant changes. In my view, there is only one structure in the nerve cells that can form and preserve coded versions of linguistic phenomena, the deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. It can perform this function, for the nerve cells do not divide. Liberated from its genetic function, the DNA in nerve cells can code and retain in its memory the vocabulary and grammar of any language we may learn. But we think in words, not in the versions of words that are coded in the DNA of nerve cells. These coded versions of words must therefore be transformed by our HSN [human spiritual nature, i. e. the non-corporeal part of our being] into words that enter our consciousness. We are not conscious of the underlying transformations; they are performed by the subconscious part of the HSN. In the interplay between the conscious and subconscious part of the HSN are formed concepts to which words refer and which in their turn find their expression in words. Words as such cannot be stored in our nerve system, they must be retained in the HSN memory, for whether they enter our consciousness in the spoken or written form, or simply as thoughts, they do so in forms which cannot be physically constituted in nerve cells.’
But back to my recording of Homer; I said I begin by reading the text in silence. In fact, I read it ‘aloud’ in my mind. Is the auditory cortex involved in this activity? It is involved when I am listening to my recordings, but that’s a very different activity and a very different experience. I don’t have any difficulty with ‘listening’ to my reading of the text ‘just in my mind’, but I find it extremely demanding to listen to my recordings without the text in my hand, so that I have reasons to believe that the acoustic brain-centre is not involved in my reading of the text ‘aloud’ just in my mind. In fact, listening to my recording, after a few lines I almost always begin to be uncertain of this or that word; the moment it happens I begin to lose track, Homer’s hexameters run on, I am lost. So I must look at the text again, the unity between my reading the text visually and ‘audibly’ just in my mind is restored when I do so; and so I close my eyes again and listen to the recorded lines with no difficulty, my hearing functions perfectly, until a new uncertainty arises a few lines on. In all this, are the circuits in the hearing cortex involved in my perceiving of the uncertainty? If so, are they communicating that uncertainty to the visual cortex? Is the visual cortex involved in improving the activity of the relevant auditory neural circuits?
In all this is, essential are the following components: 1) my listening to the recording, where the involvement of the auditory cortex is primary. The physiological activity of the auditory cortex must be transformed by the subconscious part of my being into the actual experience of my listening to the text, as it passes through my consciousness. 2) my being uncertain of what I heard, in which my consciousness is undoubtedly involved, but I don’t see why the brain should be involved in any way at this stage. 3) my visual revisiting the text, in which my visual cortex is primarily involved, as it goes hand in hand with the activity of my subconscious that transforms the physiological activity in my visual cortex into the visual impression and its ‘auditory’ (just in my mind) expression in my consciousness. 4) my listening to the text again with closed eyes, which re-enacts stage 1 corrected by virtue of stages 2 and 3. In my view, the involvement of the auditory cortex in stage 1 and 4 is mediated only indirectly by the involvement of the visual cortex in stage 3, indirectly by my conscious experience of listening to and visually apprehending the text, but directly by the sub-consciousness, which in stage 1 transforms the auditory brain activity into what I hear, in stage 2 registers the uncertainty generated in my consciousness and generates all physiological activities in the brain motor centre needed in my opening the eyes and opening the book, in stage 3 transforms the brain activities involved in my visual revisiting the text into what I actually read, in stage 4 presumably improves the auditory activity of my brain on the one hand and certainly improves my conscious reception of the verses I am listening to.
As I have got involved in describing the actual process of recording Homer, I missed an important preparatory stage, which consists in my reading of M. M. Willcock’s ‘Commentary’. Here again the visual brain-centre and long term memory is involved, this time concerning both the Greek and the English text. At present I am recording the 14th Book of the Iliad; yesterday I recorded verses 133-146 where Hera devises a scheme of getting Zeus out of the way, so that he does not hinder Poseidon in helping the Greeks hard pressed by the Trojans. In line 163 Hera deliberates how to inflame Zeus’ desire to sleep with her: ei1 pwj i9mei/raito paradraqe/ein filo/thti. Willcock comments: ‘ei1 pwj: “if in any way he might”, intermediate between an Indirect Question and a Wish. filo/thti: The word is regularly used of love-making.’ To make any sense of the comment, I must keep line 163 in front of my mind’s eye when I am reading the comment. Again, when I go back to the text, I must keep Willcock’s comment in front of my mind’s eye to enjoy the benefit of it. When I read the line 163, my visual centre must be involved. But is it involved when I ‘have the line in front of my mind’s eye when I read Willcock’s comment? And again, when I read Wilcock’s comment, my visual cortex must be involved, but is it involved when I simultaneously have in front of my mind’s eye line 163?
I have been imprecise. When I read Willcock’s comment, my mind’s eye, as far as the narrow straits of my consciousness are concerned, does not even embrace the whole comment, it passes through my consciousness into the sub-conscious, and as a whole it is perceived by the ‘eye’ of my subconscious, as is the line 163 itself, to which the comment refers.
I should like to discuss these problems with Oxford academics. How can the Master of Balliol simply say: ’It is not I fear possible to give you a platform in Balliol’? How is it possible that no Member of Balliol protests against the Master’s rejection of my offer/request? Especially when in harmony with the Master of Balliol no other College at Oxford University, no College at Cambridge University, no University in Germany, in France, in the U.S.A. … no university in the Czech Republic can give me a platform to present my views on these matters to students and academics?
These matters matter!