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Bright Air, Brilliant Fire; On the Matter of the Mind.

Gerald Edelman. Allen

Lane. [pound]20.00.

Three books have recently been published on new age philosophies of science. They are Appleyard's Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man (Pan Books), Wolpert's The Unnatural Nature of Science (Faber and Faber) and Davies's The Mind of God (Simon and Schuster). Bryan Appleyard argues that science cannot be neutral, that it is spiritually corrosive. Lewis Wolpert, like Appleyard, encourages a division between science and spirituality, but from an angle that in the face of science spirituality is nonexistent. Paul Davies on the contrary sets out to show how science, as a manifestation of the mind of God, should be enriching rather than alienating. Like Davies, Gerald Edelman in Bright Air, Brilliant Fire makes moves towards bridging the gap of dualism in his concern to put the mind back into matter. But in wanting to have a science of mind based upon biology, I would argue that his reductionist approach leaves many questions unanswered.

Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, as a scientific investigation, attempts to create a theory of mind that puts mind back into matter or nature., showing that it is feasible to have a science of mind based on biology. In the fields of philosophy and theology the question of putting mind back into matter is important because of the platonic association of matter, nature and woman with a plane lower and inferior to that of spirit. Edelman does not address this question. But he does discuss platonism and the philosophical implications of Cartesian dualism which separated mind from body, asserting, though from an opposite position of |neural Darwinism', William Blake's belief |Man has no body distinct from his soul', i.e. that dualism must cease.

Because matter has been maligned in the past, it is to Edelman's credit that he totally embraces matter or embodiment. But as he does so only in a scientific, biological way, Edelman for me finally fails. Minds (that human uniqueness caused, he advocates, by evolutionary morphology), should not exist disembodied. For the individual's spirit to be truly embodied seems a grand way of reconciling dualism. But for spirit to be embodied, spirit should not lose its spirituality -- which is what Edelman advocates if all is to be reduced purely to matter. Spirit is by definition, immaterial, so the purely material picture Edelman would paint is incomplete.

He has however woven a difficult but often rewarding tale in his attempt to provide the reader with a glimpse of the material base of mind. And of how evolution is essential to an understanding of the matter of the mind. Interestingly he claims that while behaviourism seems to be monistic it is simply dualism reduced by the denial of mind as a scientific object. He has hoped to find a connection between psychology, biology and physiology, and an interaction of the science of mind with philosophy, medicine and physics. These he sees are deeply embedded in the matter of the world as well as the unique matter of the mind. He has shown how Galileo removed mind from nature and described Descartes' |substance dualism'. He has pointed out how neurons are like nothing else -- if you were to count nerve cell connections, one per second, you would finish counting some 322 million years after you began! He stresses that the mind is not like a computer. And he has given a biological account of consciousness and the highly individual experience of the |qualia assumption'.

By constructing a brain theory based on selectionist principles (of neurons adapting to suit the task at hand) or a biology based epistemology, Edelman has hoped to have released philosophy from the narrow confines of philosophical |isms', for instance dualism. But in throwing away these he also gets rid of idealism. He suggests that the second Enlightenment will be informed by neuroscience. If our minds are the result of an evolutionary morphology, so presumably must be our evolving spiritual or creative natures. But unfortunately the |isms' he leaves us with i.e. realism, materialism, selectionism and Darwinism, mostly go against this nature.
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Author:Traylen, Maryanne
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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