Phineas Gage Evidence for Materialism

Upon understanding the extent of Phineas Gage’s accident, one begins to see its implications on studying the human brain and mind. In the classic debate of mind/brain (whether or not our identity is constructed of two components, the mind and brain; or, if mind is just a construct, or byproduct, of our brain and doesn’t actually exist) there are typically three ways of addressing this issue. The first is dualism, which is the belief both mind and brain exist (the mind in the metaphysical realm and the brain in the physical) and they communicate with each other.

The second is a straight mechanical view point. Only the brain exists and each part of the brain handles a single specific function. This is a one to one ratio. Finally the third way of looking at this is a dialect materialistic point of view. Dialectical thinkers believe only the brain exists, but not in a one to one ratio. In fact, the brain adapts and changes functions as it grows. Each part is important in how it relates to the whole, or other parts. However, due to length and time restrictions, we will look at the accident from a merely mechanical point of view.

Let’s look at Phineas’s situation. He was injured when a tapping iron shot through his frontal lobe, leaving a hole in this part of his brain. Later, his mood changed drastically from this experience. He was quick to anger, more hostile, and quick to act rather than thinking out a plan first. All his friends commented about him being a totally different person, emotionally.

At first glance this looks like a clear cut piece of evidence for the mechanical materialist. Phineas acted one way before the accident: clear-focused, thought out tactics for obtaining his goal, and was a gentle “soul.” But then he damaged a specific part of his brain-a chunk of his frontal lobe was made unusable. Afterward, Gage was more aggressive and didn’t take the time to think things through. This would seem to suggest the part of his frontal lobe which was removed was a center of calming. This part of the brain made sure the person thought about the consequences of his actions, before he acted. And, from the evidence this seems like a very understandable and accurate assumption; and, is one of the stronger points of view among most scientists today.

However, even from a materialistic viewpoint, one could determine a different reasoning from this experience. If the brain functions dialectically, then by removing a sole part of the brain we still have created a difference in relationship of the parts to each other and to the whole. For example, if we view the brain as a spider web. Think of each one of the silk threads as pathways along which the brain communicates. By removing a section of the web, the speed of communication which takes place is significantly reduced, since the spider must navigate around the missing section, and an entire section might have been cut off to the rest of the web. In this way, we can look at the accident as not removing the area which determines Phineas’s response, but instead perhaps dampened the communication of the brain, altering which response Gage would give. Perhaps, he still thinks he is even giving the same response. Maybe he thinks he is behaving gentle, when in fact he tells someone off. The message he is trying to convey simply becomes jumbled along its new, longer path.

But what does it matter if it is mechanical or dialectical? Well, if it is a dialectical relationship, then we might be able to find ways of reversing, or helping individuals who have suffered similar injuries. We could possibly train the brain to rely on new relationships which will perform similar tasks. Since it is how the parts relate to each other, rather than a specific part performing a specific function.

And what if it is mechanical? Does that mean there is no help for individuals who have suffered brain injuries and are now missing a part of their brain? Not necessarily. Science has a new understanding of stem cells, and has found brain cells which are already clean slates, waiting to adapt to whatever cell is needed at a specific time. If we can learn to manipulate these to the point of re-growing damaged sections of the brain, then we might be able to replace the section entirely, recreating the function.