Directors: Antonio M. Battro and Kurt W. Fischer
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani
Are we truly our brains? A historical perspective on the cerebral subject
The goal of this presentation is not to answer the question of its title with a conclusive "yes or "no." Rather, it will argue that the question ought to be asked, and will sketch some historical developments that brought us to the point of asking it.
"Cerebral subject" names the view that the human being is essentially his or her brain, and that one's own brain is the only part of the body that one needs in order to be herself or himself. Since the mid-20th century, this anthropological figure has become widespread, and stands behind nascent fields of inquiry. Possibilities for surgical brain repair, "brain death," the moral, legal and political consequences of seeing humans as brains have led to the emergence of neuroethics. Neurotheology searches for the neurobiological roots of spirituality, and neuroeconomics for those of personal and social consumer choice. Neuroeducation and neuropsychoanalysis pursue the integration of the neurosciences and the human sciences. "Popular culture" too offers increasing number of neurobeliefs and neuropractices, and takes functional brain images as truthful portraits of persons. At the onset of a century that has been proclaimed "the century of the brain," the cerebral subject, and brainhood as the vital constitutive property of personhood, define major challenges for the future.
The anthropology of the cerebral subject has its roots in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, in theories of mind and matters that psychologized and demateralized personal identity. These theories broke with the Christian tradition (according to which a person is essentially corporeal), and tended to reduce to the brain the body relevant for personal identity and continuity. During the 19th century, phrenology and numerous neuroscientific discoveries reinforced this trend. Collections of brains of geniuses, criminals and insane people contributed to turn the brain into the cultural icon it later became. Though anticipated in science fiction (as we shall see in the case of film), a philosophy of the cerebral subject became fully explict starting in the 1960s, and culminated in the formula, "Person A is identical to person B if, and only if, A and B possess one and the same functional brain." Which problems raises such an affirmative answer to our initial question? Are there objections and alternatives?