The case of the woman who had no fear: what materialism gets right and what it doesn’t.

Note: This is an essay I wrote when I was in college and still a baby philosopher. I wrote this essay back in 2017 for my Epistemology course.

The history of epistemology is filled with a myriad of different theories of knowledge. One of the most prominent of these throughout time has been the mind/body explanation. We know that certain philosophers started challenging dualism by developing and elaborating on different models of understanding, such as behaviorism and materialism. I agree with epistemologists that claim that in order to understand knowledge and how it works we have to have some basic understanding of neuroscience and of the brain.

Materialistic theories tend to claim that there is no such thing as “mental states.” By mental states, I mean a “kind of hypothetical state that corresponds to thinking and feeling, and consists of a conglomeration of mental representations and propositional attitudes.” By mental states, in other words, I mean something that is not “physical” in and of itself. I would also define brain states as states of the brain that can physically be seen, such as our nervous system, nerve cells firing, physical brain activity, and neurotransmitters.

Materialists claim that mental states are brain states; therefore, they argue, we should not worry much about what mental states are or how they feel. Although I do agree that mental states might only be brain states, I want to argue that being able to linguistically explain how our mental states feel (regardless of them being purely physical) is important to our understanding of life and our experience in the world. Being able to have and engage in the linguistic ability to describe brain states gives us an opportunity at a worldview that is more meaningful and not radically self-undermining.

In order for me to get my argument across, I first have to give a brief history about the mind body problem. I will start off by talking about Plato. Plato was one of the first philosophers to come up with a dualistic theory of knowledge. Plato believed that we find knowledge outside of the realm of human experience. Knowledge stems from, according to Plato, a state of recollection, not from experiences or in the physical world. Rather, knowledge comes from the recollection of forms that are located in our minds and Plato’s heaven. In Plato’s theory of forms, you acquire knowledge by ascending up the line into the forms. According to Plato, knowledge isn’t in our brains, it isn’t a physical state, it is something outside of us, there is duality in his theory.

Aristotle was a student of Plato, yet he didn’t agree with Plato’s theory of forms. Aristotle was the first philosopher to systematically engage in empirical research. He was the first one to classify and organize things. Aristotle believed Socrates, not Plato, had it right; he believed that in order to understand knowledge you have to start with the human experience. According to Aristotle, you take items in through sense perception, and you state them through language which you then organize it in a form of syllogism. He believed in abstraction; the mind gets ahold of something in the external world and translates it into knowledge.

According to the dualists, mental states are states of an immaterial mind or soul, or even heaven, as in Plato’s case. Most famously known for his dualistic theory is Rene Descartes. Descartes held that mind and body are fundamentally different and separate entities. Minds are thinking but non spatial, bodies are spatial but non thinking, he would argue. This is known as substance or metaphysical dualism – that the universe is composed of two and fundamentally distinct kinds of substance. The argument that mind and body are separate entities never really seemed plausible to me. There is no scientific evidence or proof that a “soul” exists or that the mind is something outside of the body. If mind and body (including physical world) are fundamentally different substances, how is it possible to explain how they could even begin to interact with each other? What could they possibly have in common?

To explain things about consciousness and epistemology that we do not yet know of by assigning it to a “soul” seems like a cop-out, and it diminishes further investigation and research into the topic. If it follows that the soul is something outside of us, something immaterial, then how could we have access to it? How could we have access to this “immaterial stuff?” It also makes it seem as if this immaterial stuff is impermeable. That we all in some shape or form have the same “forms” or knowledge. But we know this is not the case.

By studying neuroscience and the brain, we have come to know that “neurons are excitable cells, and neurons on the sensory periphery are activated by such things as photons or vibration, while neurons on the motor periphery cause the contraction of muscles. In between are neurons that orchestrate the sequence of muscle cell contractions permitting the organism to move so as to deal appropriately with the world outside its nervous system, by fleeing, feeding, and so forth. Neurons are the basic elements of nervous systems; they are evolution’s solution to the problem of adaptive movement.”

By learning how neurons and the brain work, we can see how malleable the brain is. If one little thing goes wrong in the brain, everything about us, even our personalities can change. It has been said by scientists that our fear center is located in the amygdala in the brain. Having a structure in our brain to scan for things we should be fearful of is actually a good thing. It helps us avoid danger and seek safety. Have you ever wondered what would happen if your amygdala had a malfunction?

As research on a woman named S.M. – 046 shows, amygdala damage can lead to quite the opposite of fear. It can make you fearless. S.M. grew up like any other child, she felt happy at times, sad at others, and angry as well. She also responded fairly normally to scary things. For instance, if a dog was chasing her, she would run and/or scream. If someone snuck up behind her, she would feel alarmed. At around age 10, she began suffering from Urbach Wiethe disease, a rare disorder that kills amygdala cells. It is so rare that there have only been about 400 cases ever recorded. Within a few years of developing this rare disease, she had two black holes where her amygdala should have been.

Ever since then, she hasn’t felt any fear. Doctors came up with the most creative scenarios to scare her. They would put her in a cage with snakes and she would pet them as if they were puppies. They showed her the movie The Shining and Silence of the Lambs, and she showed sadness, surprise, and even disgust but not fear. No fear at all. S.M. even described how one night she was walking back to her house and someone walked over to her with a knife and started threatening to kill her if she didn’t hand over her valuables. She didn’t struggle at all. In fact, she even murmured something about God protecting her, and the man got weirded out by her calmness and let her go. Ironically, she ended up scaring him.

How did S.M. learn how to feel fear? Or rather how did she unlearn to feel it? Did her immaterial soul suddenly stop feeling fear? Of course not. Rather, a physical component of her brain (the amygdala) had a malfunction, and, therefore, she lost her ability to feel fear. It wasn’t that she learned or unlearned how to feel fear, it’s that the brain works a certain way. The brain has the capacity to create certain “states” of being and of feeling. These states stem from physical components. For most of recorded history, human beings have believed that the mind (and soul) are not situated in the brain, rather somewhere outside of it. Meanwhile, some “heathen” physicians and scientists began to have different perspectives on where the mind came from. There had been too many cases of people getting knocked out and getting some damage done to their head and brain and start to lose some higher faculty to attribute it all to a soul.

By the 1600’s a larger consensus emerged backing the idea that the mind lies within the brain. Another example of why some people started questioning the mind body theory was because of a famous neurosurgeon called Wilder Penfield and his sister. During the 1920’s, Penfield received a letter from his mother telling him that his sister was very ill. She was suffering from an increased rate of seizures and convulsions. Since he was a neurosurgeon, they thought it would be a good idea to ask him for his medical advice and opinion. Penfield asked his sister to meet him, and there he would take a look at her. It turns out that his sister was suffering from epilepsy, and Penfield thought it was a good idea to cut into her brain to fix the problem. He realized that Ruth (his sister) had a tumor that was consuming most of her frontal lobe.

Penfield set about removing it, and he ended up removing about one-eighth of her brain because of collateral tissue damage. Poor Ruth, I wouldn’t want to be Penfield’s sister! This wasn’t even the worst of it; it is documented that as Penfield was trying to sew up Ruth’s head again, he noticed that a root of the tumor had slithered off along the skull floor. Ultimately, Penfield did some more mumbo jumbo on Ruth’s head and ended up sewing her up. I have no idea how but, surprisingly, Ruth survived.

During the following days, Ruth started to suffer from migraines and dizziness. She regained her sense of humor and her charisma quickly, but something about Ruth had changed. Ruth lost what neuroscientists have called “executive function.” Executive dysfunction is a disruption to the efficacy of the executive functions, which is a group of cognitive processes that regulate, control, and manage other cognitive faculties. So Ruth was now unable to follow through simple plans such as cooking dinner, or attending meetings; she had lost her cognitive senses to do simple tasks. She would take hours to decide what to eat, or what to wear. Ruth was no longer Ruth. I wouldn’t be myself either if one eighth of my brain was removed! My point with presenting these cases is to allude to the argument that materialism seems to be by far more accurate than dualism. Dualism, I would argue, seems a rather trite argument to account for epistemology, and consciousness overall. We learn and unlearn things, we understand how the world works because we have a material brain.

What would happen, though, if everything we know about knowledge and consciousness and our being in the world was reduced to materialism? What if we ended up explaining everything in terms of physical phenomena? I have so far presented examples of why it is important to take into account neuroscience and the physical aspect of our brain in order to understand how knowledge works. Yet materialism doesn’t account for everything. Materialism doesn’t give us the language to describe how these physical states are experienced in the world.

If I were to say I am feeling X way because neurotransmitter B is not working well, or that I am unable to memorize certain things because nerve cell X is not firing correctly in my brain, these sentences would not give a phenomenological account of how it feels for neurotransmitter a, b, or c not to be working properly. If I were to say neurotransmitter B is not working very well, and that must be why I am feeling very depressed today, it would seem to make a distinction between brain and mental states. Depressed being the mental state and neurotransmitter B being the physical state. But what if in reality both states are physical; with “depressed” being just a linguistic form of expressing our phenomenological account of how neurotransmitter B not working feels.

Thomas Nagel writes that “the hope is not to discover a foundation that makes our knowledge unassailably secure but to find a way of understanding ourselves that does not undermine us and require us to deny the obvious. The aim would be to offer a plausible picture of how we fit into the world.” To me, this quote by Thomas Nagel explains how materialism fails in certain respects. It fails to offer a plausible picture of how we fit into the world to a majority of people. If I go to a stranger and say “my neurotransmitter X is not working today!” most likely they would think I am a very weird person or they would just brush it off. Although materialism does help us understand knowledge and how the brain works, it fails to account for our everyday experiences and being in the world. It fails to create a language where empathy and connection can be built upon. After all, if Ricoeur is right, and language ultimately creates our reality, then what type of reality would we have if all we end up with is materialistic jargon? According to Ricoeur, knowledge comes about only when we are comfortable on a particular discourse. Language is related to culture, and vice versa, and our language ultimately creates our reality, Ricoeur would say. If our discourse were to be one that is completely materialistic, I would argue that we would lose something about our human experience.

Professor Amardo Rodriguez from Syracuse University states: “communication is more than a transmission or transference device – it is a way in which we connect with and realize our humanity.” In this essay I have argued that materialism –not dualism – is the stronger argument to epistemological concerns. Yet materialism fails to account for everything. We still do not have a bulletproof paradigm for epistemology and I don’t think we ever will have one but I do think that the way we use language to describe our knowledge and experience in the world is important. Materialism, although I believe to be in the right path to scientific understanding, fails to take into consideration the importance of our phenomenological experience in the world. I would argue that language is more than transactional, language can be transformative and we should be using our language in ways that will transform us into better, more compassionate, and empathetic human beings.

Work Cited:

Churchland, Patricia Smith. Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-brain. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT, 2015. Print.

Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.