In search for a non-content perspective of brain activity, I often feel I come up empty handed. Either non-content is not really directly spoken about (e.g. Anderson, 2014, and isn’t really intended to -it does however very importantly free us from other assumptions), or when a positive account is languaged like “but the brain does this or that” is more confusing to me than clarifying. So I’ve been criticized for not having my own positive account, or even a reasonable idea of what I expect or accept as a good answer. So here’s a minimal start.
With a non-content view of the brain, I mean that, any and all activity in the brain is not representational, symbolic, or in any way carries any content in the sense that if I show you a picture of a cat then your cat neurons are firing (simplified of course). To clarify this further, Anderson to me gets close, talking about the brain in a functional sense, non-reductionally. Instead, everything “magic” already happens in a) the continuously ongoing relationship in a given organism-environment system, but importantly, b) in the sensory system(s) (e.g. eyes, ears, legs, body at large, etc.).
All that really would happen after sense-making at the sensory system organs, would be probabilistic (and likely functional as Anderson suggests) networks of directed firing. I mean this in quite a specific way. For example, eyes connect to brain at specific sites, electrical signals propagate from eye to brain at specific sites and an initial direction, but after that, neuronal firing is (due to specific reasons) a matter of what current state immediately neighbouring neurons are in. So, if one neighbour is in post-firing and another not, the latter has a higher likelihood of firing. At a larger scale, what we will see in an image of the brain is a dendritic spreading that at the time is part stochastic (and re-used) because neurons in this sense are non-essential. Of course, if a network of neurons (with part stochastic spread) are firing together, like the oscillators they are, they are more likely to fire together again at a short time scale (they are also likely to fire together again at a longer time scale, but less so. Here is where a lot of the misinterpreting of brain images (by cognitivists usually) exist if you ask me, neurons and often networks of neurons are seen as essential or carrying content so we make a one-to-one mapping between an image of a cat and the specific neurons that are firing -but there are far too many confounds for this to be a confident finding.
Like anything dynamic systems tells us, future (or current) state depends on the history of the system, and because there is no real beginning to any one individual’s brain activation, I cannot bring myself to believe that the brain ‘starts a series of neuronal firings to achieve a body movement’. Body movement is in relation to environment, that’s where the decision is made to move a certain way, that’s where “cognition” is. Actually moving a body part, yes, that is connected to brain firing -but not (necessarily) in a causal manner. Direction, intentionality, agency, mind, is not in the brain, it is in the relationship between organism and environment, a course of body movements is already given by that relationship, at most and only in this sense, is the brain a “mediating” structure.
An aside. Blood flow through the brain is already always ongoing. Co-developing with all our other organs, will also play a (perhaps minor) part in where and how a probabilistic dendritic neuronal network of firing will move through the brain. Then, wherever that was, will need more blood flow (as is the basis of most imaging techniques), however (and again), because the route through the brain is part stochastic anyways, it makes no sense to talk about brain regions, networks, or neurons in any detached, representational, contenty, essential, manner. Re-use, on the other hand, and functional (roughly similar from time 1 to time 2) networks of firing, over time, is what the brain is up to. Because of this, with current imaging techniques, they can get us worse or better probabilities of ‘what’s going on’, and interventions can hit or miss depending on individual and time of intervention. But if you are interested in human behavior, it is probably not the most productive scale or scope at which to analyse it (although there’ll be some absolutely beautiful oscillator dynamics going on at a neuronal level).
The first response ever to anything non-representational, ‘yeah, well, how do you explain closing your eyes and thinking to yourself “I am going to move my hand now” and then move your hand?’ Well, firstly, the question already assumes the brain did it, so it is always an unfair question. But. Nevertheless it needs to be answered. As always, closing your eyes and remaining still isn’t some kind of magical state where you are closed off to the world, you are still continuously co-constituted with it. In fact, I can predict that sentence above to be said because of the type of conversation we are having -the history of the system already determines and constrains direction and force into and with the future. But most importantly, the experience of the “decision” in the ‘word-sentence’ that you are thinking doesn’t ‘come from’/isn’t instantiated in the brain, it is already a decided course due to the relationship between you and the environment that you are in -alike other body movement through the world. I could respond and say “do you know how many people choose their arm/hand to move when we get to this point in the conversation? 100% so far”, that is how constraining our history is (and the direction it already gives us) even on a short timescale. You could respond “ok well now I can think of anything and maybe I won’t even move, just think that I will but don’t”, and we can go around forever in this type of dialogue, entrenching us further into that dissonant attractor state. The last point is, that question doesn’t really tell us what is going on, at worst it is a defensive reaction, at best a curiosity that likely can be satisfied empirically or by appealing to the continuously ongoing activity of our senses and sense-making.
Theory of Mind really is dead.