It’s one thing to say you wouldn’t be you if not for your brain, that your brain is critical to what you are. But I could say that about your upbringing and your culture, too. It’s another thing entirely to say that you are your brain.
I don’t reject the idea that the brain is necessary for consciousness; but I do reject the argument that it is sufficient. That’s just a fancy, contemporary version of the old philosophical idea that our true selves are interior, cut off from the outside world, only accidentally situated in the world. The view I’m attacking claims that neural activity is enough to explain consciousness, that you could have consciousness in a petri dish. It supposes that consciousness happens inside the brain the way digestion occurs inside the GI tract. But consciousness is not like digestion; it doesn’t happen inside of us. It is something we do, something we achieve. It’s more like dance than it is like digestion.
Even if we had a perfect way of observing exactly what a brain was doing, we would never be able to understand how it made us have the kinds of experiences we do. The experiences just aren’t happening inside our skulls. Trying to understand consciousness in neural terms alone is like trying to understand a car driving down the road only in terms of its engine. It’s bad philosophy masquerading as science….
Just as an engine is necessary in a car. But an engine doesn’t “give rise” to driving; driving isn’t something that happens inside the engine. The engine contributes to the car’s ability to drive. Consciousness is more like driving than our philosophical tradition leads us to expect. To be conscious is to have a world. The fact is, you and I don’t have what it takes to make a world on our own. We find the world, we don’t make it in our brains.
The brain is essential for our lives, physiology, health and experience. But the idea that it is the whole story, or even the key to understanding the story, is not a scientific conclusion. It’s a prejudice. Consciousness requires the joint operation of the brain, the body and the world.
Sports bring us the human body as a manifestation of nature—not just the elegant forms of athletes, but their animal ability to move through air and water. At the Olympics, these bodies are co-opted by a political culture that wants to be seen as natural, legitimate, stirring, beautiful. Beautiful bodies are just one kind of nature that nations like to claim. After all, this country invented the idea of “national” parks and claims the sublimity of the Grand Canyon (which preceded it by hundreds of millions of years) and all those purple mountains’ majesty as part of its identity. Corporations too like pristine landscapes, particularly for advertisements in which an SUV perches on some remote ledge, or a high-performance car zips along a winding road through landscape splendor. Few car commercials portray gridlock or even traffic—that your car is just a car among cars—let alone the vehicle’s impact on those pristine environments. Of course most of us have become pretty well versed in critiquing advertisements as such—we assume they are coverups if not outright lies. But the Olympics have not been subjected to the same level of critique.
We recently had the rare privilege of attending a private screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s famous but seldom-seen film Olympia, made to celebrate the 1936 “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin. The powerful artistry and technical mastery of “Hitler’s moviemaker” left everyone stunned.
Naturally, the number one question asked afterward was about the relation of art to morality. There has been no clear answer to this question, but here are two sets of reactions that some of us shared:
Overall, the movie is apolitical. The overwhelming effect at the end of the very long movie is of the beauty of the human body in action. Riefenstahl’s amazing camera angles, often catching the athletes from below in motion against a sky filled with fair-weather clouds, are indeed “Olympian” in more ways than one. The astonishment of the second half, which covers the athletic events themselves, tends to cancel out the creepiness of the first half.
The first half of the film is deeply disturbing. It depicts the carrying of the Olympic torch by fleet, proud runners (looking for all the world like the old Modern Library logo) and then the opening procession with numerous shots of a beaming Adolf Hitler taking the salutes of the various teams as they pass. It is impossible to resist the powerful emotional effect of this pageantry. As the team members from the various countries (including the USA) pass in review, many give the Nazi salute with Rockette-like precision, all others turn their heads toward the Führer with perfect symmetry as they march by. What did they know? (By 1936, they should have known plenty.) Did it matter to them? I found myself choking on tears and fury. Here were the principalities and powers on review. Human nature is irresistibly drawn to spectacle, and can be manipulated in almost any direction through pageantry when it is harnessed to nationalism and the will to power. We should beware of our own proclivities when we watch the Olympics this summer.