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Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6



Further Reading

The Mysterious Matter of Mind

Chapter Four

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 no revision.

     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 (1937—1938), which were later published under the title Man on His Nature (1940).

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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 of Descartes.
     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.
     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:

41. This is reprinted in Penfield's Second Career, Toronto, Little, Brown, 1963, pp.66—75.
42. Needham, Joseph, quoted in Theodore H. Savory, Mechanistic Biology and Animal Behaviour, London. Watts, 1936, title page.

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     Biologists 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 of investigation,

43. Ibid., p.170.

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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 of complexity.

Sherrington Changes His Mind

     But progress 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.33—34.

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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."

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 No.934. p.3.

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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:

     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 at death?
     As we have seen earlier, long before Sherrington, Claude Bernard (1813—1873) 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:

     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 emphasis throughout]

     Sherrington 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, 1949, p.69.

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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 his mind.

     Whatever was 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, 1977, p.558.

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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