Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Mind’s I

The Mind’s I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul is a radical exploration of mind/brain/body/soul in which editors Hofstadter & Dennett (1981) have arranged an enigmatic collection of provocative texts to problematize the nature of self:

  1. A Sense of Self
  2. Soul Searching
  3. From Hardware to Software
  4. Mind as Program
  5. Created Selves and Free Will
  6. The Inner Eye

“Where Am I” (chapter 13) is Dennett’s fantastical piece (reprinted from Brainstorms) recounting his highly dangerous and secret mission for the Dept. of Defense (in collaboration with NASA and Howard Hughes) to develop a STUD (Supersonic Tunneling Underground Devise). In short, Dennett’s assignment is to undergo an advanced surgical procedure: the radical separation of his brain from his body.

After the operation is deemed successful, a lightheaded Dennett gets really excited to take a good look at his brain – of course he is excited, wouldn’t you be?! Upon seeing his brain, floating in a mysterious bubbling fluid that looks like ginger-ale, Dennett wonders why his thoughts are originating from his body? Why is he staring at his brain-in-a-vat instead of believing that he is suspended in the effervescent fluid, being stared upon by his very own eyes? He tries and tries again to think himself into the sparkling vat, but to no avail. Riddled with confusion, he attempts to orient himself by giving names to things:

Yorick,” I said aloud to my brain, “you are my brain.  The rest of my body, seated in this chair, I dub ‘Hamlet.’”  So here we all are:  Yorick’s my brain, Hamlet’s my body, and I am Dennett. Now, where am I? And when I think “where am I?”, where’s that thought tokened?  Is it tokened in my brain, lounging about in the vat, or right here between my ears where it seems to be tokened?  Or nowhere?  Its temporal coordinates give me no trouble; must it not have spatial coordinates as well?

Of course, this story isn’t (and couldn’t) be true. Dennett’s philosophical fantasy seeks to shake-up our unquestioned assumptions about the mind/brain/body/self (particularly to provoke the narrow-minded, no-nonsense, scientific view of the human soul). Dennett’s philosophical truths of “underwhelming significance” serve to make the strange obvious and the obvious strange, revealing perplexities with absurdity, such that we may be jolted to see throught our conditioning and begin to rethink our assumptions. Where is Dennett? His brain (aka Yorick)? His body (aka Hamlet)? Or is there no Dennett? Or is Dennett wherever he thinks he is (i.e., his point of view is also the location of his self)? If the sense of location is but illusion, then perhaps so is the sense of self?

In questioning his “essential Dennettness”, Fortinbras (Dennett’s new body, after the expiration of Hamlet) routinely flips an intentionally unmarked Master Switch that allows him to switch from Yorick to Hubert (his newly cloned brain) or vice versa. Every time he flips the switch, nothing happens. Dennett doesn’t have any idea where his self is. But he continues to flip in the switch, longing for the moment of understanding, and then, all of sudden:

“THANK GOD!  I THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER FLIP THAT SWITCH! You can’t imagine how horrible it’s been these last two weeks — but now you know; it’s your turn in purgatory.  How I’ve longed for this moment!  You see…

I’m not one to spoil a good story, so you’ll have to find the answer for yourself in Dennett’s text: Where Am I?