Table of Contents
The Mysterious Matter of Mind
A Theory Too Small
The death on March 4, 1952,
of Sir Charles Sherrington at the age of 94 marked the passing
of the man of genius who laid the foundations of our knowledge
of the functioning of the brain and spinal cord. His classic
work Integrative Action of the Nervous System, published
in 1906, is still a source of inspiration to physiologists all
over the world. It was reprinted as recently as 1947 for the
first post-war (World War II) International Congress on Physiology.
His work did for neurology what the atomic theory did for chemistry.
It is still as refreshing as it was in 1906, and it has needed
So reads part
of the obituary notice in The British Medical Journal for
March 15, 1952. And in a sense it sums up the originality
and the quality of the research of a lifetime. Sherrington did
not retire from the Chair of Physiology at Oxford until 1935
at the age of seventy-eight. Shortly thereafter he was invited
to deliver the Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology at Edinburgh
University (19371938), which were later published under
the title Man on His Nature (1940).
Thus it came about that
Sherrington (by then knighted) turned from cats and chimpanzees
to man. The biologist became philosopher and addressed himself
to the mind/body relationship. And increasingly he moved toward
a dualist position, adopting in effect the interactionism
After his retirement, his scientific
work was carried on for some fourteen years by a number of younger
men, among them John C. Eccles and Wilder Penfield.
Penfield later paid a superb tribute
to Sherrington as a man and as a scientist in an address to the
Canadian Neurological Society in Saskatoon in June, 1957. He
spoke of Sherrington as a "legend" in the minds of
most of those who knew him and his work, and he referred to him
as his own personal scientific hero. (41)
He states that Sherrington had
a knack of always presenting both sides of each physiological
problem in the classroom, often leaving his hearers in a state
of frustrated confusion! As a student, he sometimes wished that
Sherrington would "hide his doubts beneath a shining mantle
of authority" and give his pupils a greater sense of security.
But it was not Sherrington's way. He had a broad mind and a brilliant
one and a memory that "excelled that of any man I have ever
known for accuracy of detail."
In physiology Sherrington had always
been a realist, seeking truth openly and as far as possible without
bias. Stanley Cobb, one of his distinguished American students,
hailed him as the outstanding proponent of dualism after Socrates
and Descartes. Ultimately he adopted a belief in the existence
of two separate elements the body and the spirit
in the human constitution. But he was never ready to commit himself
as explicitly as two of his outstanding students have since done.
He did not have the experimental data that they were to become
heir to in making their decision.
While engaged in active research,
Sherrington had resisted the temptation to adopt a dualist position
in the mind/brain controversy. His philosophy was very similar
to that of Joseph Needham who, in 1936, had written: (42)
41. This is reprinted in Penfield's Second
Career, Toronto, Little, Brown, 1963, pp.6675.
42. Needham, Joseph, quoted in Theodore H. Savory, Mechanistic
Biology and Animal Behaviour, London. Watts, 1936, title
find that their work is possible only if they define
life as a dynamic equilibrium in a polyphasic system consisting
of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, lipoids, cycloses, and water.
In short, life
is "nothing but" physics and chemistry. Needham underscored
this approach to scientific research by saying: (43)
Mechanism is the backbone of
scientific thought in biology, since in science we have to act
as if the mechanistic theory of life were true, but we are in
no way committed to it as a metaphysically valid statement.
Scientific progress can be made
only by those who experiment as if mechanism is true.
From its beginning,
this outlook was reinforced not merely by its appeal in terms
of conceptual simplicity and manageableness, but by reason of
its tremendous success in the extension of technology and of
man's control over the natural (i.e., the physical) order. Scientists,
rightly enough for their purposes, ignored a whole area
of reality in their search for power over the forces of nature.
They succeeded so well that the public went one step further
and began to deny what the scientists had merely ignored.
Then the scientists, themselves being part of "the public,"
in due time fell into the same trap and reinforced what the public
denied. Mechanism gained a dominating hold, and the spirit of
"nothing-but-ism" captured the thinking of many research
workers and intellectuals.
This was the environment in which
Sherrington began his long career. In the laboratory one finds
oneself locked in to this "nothing-but-ism" and "as-if-ism"
because the climate of scientific opinion predisposes thinking
in this way and because our instruments and techniques have been
designed to give us only these kinds of answers. No one wants
to be excommunicated from the scientific network by questioning
current presuppositions, and financial support cannot be obtained
easily for research done in any other kind of spirit.
Thus having concentrated all "design
initiatives" upon the subject to be investigated,
the tools with which to investigate, and the methods
43. Ibid., p.170.
we boxed ourselves into
a mechanistic approach.
This forced us to assume that life
is merely an extension at a certain level of organization and
mindedness is merely an extension of life at a certain level
Sherrington Changes His Mind
in understanding has continued. Science has within itself a certain
self-correctiveness, though it is slow in action. Those who most
wholeheartedly follow Thomas Huxley's advice and "sit down
before fact as a little child, [and] follow humbly wherever and
whatever abysses nature leads to" indeed learn and sometimes
modify their views substantially.
Unfortunately, it requires mature
reflection and considerable courage for any scientist who cares
for reputation to publicly depart from current orthodoxy. The
result is that such shifts are apt to occur toward the end of
a scientist's career and the impact is likely to have little
effect on his own generation. Max Planck observed: "A new
scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents
and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents
eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar
with it." (44)
Hence change tends to be rather slow.
Sherrington was a man of genius
who was also an essentially humble man in the Huxleyan sense.
He rightly excluded any appeal to non-physical force when he
sought to explain the operations of the nervous system, especially
in man. It is clear, however, that in the course of half a century
of research he observed pervasive non-physical reality that expressed
itself in apparent purposefulness. This suggested a form of mindedness
that could not be altogether denied.
To admit such non-physical and
therefore non-quantifiable "forces" in the laboratory
is often fatal to research because it invites laziness. What
cannot be easily explained in terms of physics and chemistry
is not further pursued because it is too easily explained in
terms of non-physical causes which have nothing to do with science.
The search for physical causes of such phenomena may be abandoned
and the demonstration
44. Planck, Max, Scientific Autobiography
and Other Papers, New York, Greenwood, 1968, pp.3334.
of strict causality fails,
even in areas of research where persistence would have advanced
our understanding of nature substantially. So the temptation
to admit non-physical reality is regarded as thoroughly unhealthy
to scientific progress, as indeed it can be.
In the study of man this sometimes
causes very disturbing tensions for the individual who wants
to take a whole view of reality. In discussion with colleagues
it can lead to entirely unsatisfactory and often highly disruptive
debate. On the floor of the conference room it can result in
recrimination and discreditation, and this can be very
hurtful to the reputation and career of the young scientist
As a consequence it is almost always
the older scientist who has already established his reputation
among his peers and who is in little danger of losing it who
can afford to say what he really feels in such sensitive matters.
Even though he was already a figure of great stature, Sherrington
in his Man on His Nature was still very cautious in admitting
publicly the doubts that had evidently begun to form in his mind
as to whether man could be accounted for in monistic terms. He
sometimes seems almost apologetic for his dualistic approach.
But dualism can take more than
one form. It could be, Sherrington declared, that what was later
by Eccles to be called the "self-conscious mind" or
"soul," and by Penfield "the spirit," was
a kind of emergent phenomenon arising out of the brain, which
at a certain point achieved a kind of independence. Thus, in
this volume of reflections, Sherrington admitted somewhat tentatively,
"That our being should consist of two fundamental elements
offers I suppose no greater inherent improbability than that
it should rest on one only." (45)
Scientific Rigour Maintained
In 1968, Penfield,
to whom this admission was made by his teacher, commented that
he too thought this was the best way to leave the issue. But
he himself in due course was far more willing to admit the independence
of mind at least operationally, even if not in its independent
origin. Although it meant stepping across the
45. Sir Charles Sherrington: quoted by Wilder
Penfield, "Engrams in the Human Brain: Mechanisms of Memory,"
Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, August,
1968, reprinted by Montreal Neurological Institute as Reprint
boundary of strict monism
into a belief in the non-physical reality of mind, he felt that
such a "confession" was no reason to assume that critical
judgment was being abandoned.
The problem of the origin of mind
is a perplexing one for the monist, since mind has to be identified
in some proto form at some prior stage in the development
of life. As we have seen, this is very difficult to do. Regarding
the origin of mind, Sherrington wrote in 1940: (46)
Who shall discover it in the
little mulberry-mass [the morula stage] which for each of us
is our all a little later than the one-celled stage. . . . Yet
who shall deny it in the child which in a few months' time that
embryo will become? So conversely, at death it seems to re-emerge
into no mind. But it seems to come from nothing and return to
nothing. The devolution into nothing seems as difficult as the
evolution out of nothing.
We really have
two problems here. Did "mind" arise out of mindless
matter by a process of emergence, or did it arise out of nothing,
by a kind of creation? And of course, what happens to mindedness
As we have seen earlier, long before
Sherrington, Claude Bernard (18131873) had established a
credo for physiologists which cast the spirit of research
in an iron mold from which it was not to escape for over a century.
He had written: (47)
In living bodies as in inorganic
bodies, laws are immutable and the phenomena governed by
these laws are bound to the conditions on which they exist by
a necessity and absolute determinism. . . .
A determinism in the conditions
of vital phenomena should be one of the axioms of experimenting
physicians. If they are thoroughly imbued with the truth of this
principle, they will exclude all supernatural intervention
from their explanations; they will have unshaken faith in the
idea that fixed laws govern biological science. . . .
Determinism thus becomes
the foundation of all scientific progress and criticism. [my
grew up in this intellectual environment and was, at least in
his younger days, perhaps largely unaware of the fog it created.
He accepted it and indeed
46. Sherrington, Sir Charles, Man on His
Nature, Cambridge University Press, 1951, 2nd edition, p.210.
47. Bernard, Claude, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental
Medicine, translated by H. C. Greene, New York, Henry Schuman,
thrived upon it. Yet
its limitations must later have become apparent to him. But from
long habit of mind he was not able (or willing) to entertain
the idea that there might be another world of reality not subject
to the instruments of measurement which were designed to investigate
only the material world. Perhaps Sherrington could not even admit
the existence of a non-material world, but he seems in the end
to have come very close to the idea that mind had some transcendent
value. Even if it came out of "no-mind," it did not
return to no-mind when the brain was dissolved. This appears
to be the implication of a statement he made to Sir John Eccles
five days before he died. "For me now," Sherrington
said, "the only reality is the human soul." (48)
Who knows how much was intended
beyond the manifest fact that his own body was almost ready for
dissolution and he knew it. What vigour remained to him was in
meant, two of his pupils were to carry his own research forward
in a freer spirit. Their conclusions have given enormous weight
to the dualistic argument with Cartesian interactionist overtones.
The mind does not wholly govern the operation of the brain, nor
the brain wholly govern what goes on in the mind.
Sherrington's great contribution
is that he laid the foundations for the understanding of the
operation of the brain and yet did it in such a way that his
students were still left free to pursue the even more important
study, the nature of the interaction in the mind/brain partnership.
48. Popper, Sir Karl and Sir John Eccles,
The Self and Its Brain, Springer Verlag International,
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved
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