Ongoing concern of philosophical discourse

Phantom Limbs

When we ask ourselves what is knowledge (as we do when we are engaged in the process of philosophy) we are effectively asking what is our relationship with the world. V.S. Ramachandran – as is the norm for philosophers – asks the question about our relationship to the world by using what at first might seem to be a relatively trivial issue, or at least one that very few of us shall ever actually have to worry about, which is the question of phantom limbs, the subject of both Ramachandran’s interest and our own.

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The desire to know and the desire to discover are essentially active, even aggressive actions taken on the part of consciousness to acquire pieces or aspects of the world. When we seek knowledge, we seek to take into our minds (and so to take into our bodies physically) something that exists in the world. We seek through knowledge to dismantle the world and so to come to possess it.

This is of course an ongoing concern of philosophical discourse. Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, argues for this model of knowledge, arguing that it is a sort of black hole, something that uses the primordial forces of cognition and reason to draw the world into the self. We construct ourselves out of bits of the real world; thus we cannot in any sense argue that knowledge and self are different entities since we actively create who we are through our active acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge is the process of choosing which pieces of the world to incorporate. Thus knowledge is the process of making ourselves responsible for the world around us. In other words – or at least this is the Sartrean position, and Ramachandran would not necessarily disagree – is not merely a collection of facts. It is the active way in which we interact with the world around us. It is linked to our state of being.

Related to this question of the nature of knowledge is of course the question of what is the nature of the self. The question of self is one often expressed in philosophy as the question of “being” (as opposed to, or in addition to) “knowing” and has been of primary concern for many if not most philosophers, who have argued that whatever certainties may be possible in our world must come from an understanding of our authentic self, the core of our individuality.

But questions of the self are not so simple as they first seem – and they are hardly seemingly simple even at first glance. And it is to suggest at the complexity of one of the most seemingly simple ontological questions (Who are we in the sense of we do our bodies begin and end) that Ramachandran takes up the issue of phantom limbs.

We should first here define the concepts of phantom limb and phantom pain:

Imagine having your arm cut off and still being able to feel where your arm used to be. That is what it is like to have a phantom limb. People with this condition feel that the limb (an arm or leg) that was removed is still present and they often feel pain, and sometimes pleasure. Usually the pain is mild and is only a small distraction. However, some people describe the pain and other symptoms of phantom limb as totally unbearable. When a person experiences pain from phantom limb, this is often referred to as phantom pain.

More commonly, people with phantom limb feel other abnormal sensations in the missing limb besides pain. The pain and abnormal sensations are typically in the form of stabbing, cramping, burning, or crushing sensations. Warmth, itchiness, and squeezing sensations are other symptoms that are commonly reported. These sensations can occur continuously or they can occur only some of the time. Stress usually makes the symptoms of phantom limb worse

People with phantom limb usually perceive the arm or leg to be in a certain position, and sometimes, the arm or leg is perceived to move. They may also feel that when a different body part is touched (such as the face) that a limb is being touched (such as an arm). Some people with phantom limb experience a symptom known as telescoping, in which the imagined limb slowly shrinks ((

There are clearly purely medical (i.e. therapeutic) issues to be dealt with in terms of phantom pain. But the idea of phantom limbs is a more salubrious one and allows us – or rather allows Ramachandran to examine how it is that our interior sense of self matches some objective measure of that self. We think that if we know nothing else we know where our bodies begin and end. But this is in fact not the case.

Recently, Ramachandran and Rogers-Ramachandran used a Mirror Box Procedure (MBP) to treat phantom limb pain. In this procedure, upper-limb amputees placed their intact arm into a box, with a mirror down the midline, so that when viewed from slightly off-center, the reflection of their arm gave the impression of having two intact arms. Individual differences were observed in the extent to which participants were susceptible to the MBP illusion. Moreover, although this technique had quite dramatic therapeutic value for some people, it was only moderately effective, or completely ineffective, for others. More worriedly, some investigators have recently found that using the MBP to induce illusory body experiences can actually worsen phantom limb pain in people who have had an amputation (MacLachlan, Desmond & Horgan, 2000).

This experiment is linked to another one that Ramachandran has performed and which is – from a philosophical point-of-view – even more challenging. It might be relatively easy to dismiss the epistemological significance of phantom limb pain because it is in some sense unnatural; but Ramachandran and Blakesee have demonstrated that each one of us is subject to such illusions. We can all be convinced – quite easily, albeit temporarily – that we are Pinocchio.

The ENP described by Ramachandran and Blakeslee aimed to produce the illusion that the participant’s nose had stretched approximately 3 ft in front of his or her face [10]. The blindfolded participant was seated directly behind a volunteer, both of whom were facing in the same direction. The participant allowed the experimenter to passively manipulate his or her left hand so that the index finger was used to touch the volunteer’s nose in a rhythmic tapping sequence. The experimenter simultaneously and synchronously tapped the participant’s nose in the same manner. After 1 1/2 min, the participant was requested to give an open-ended description of his or her experience. The experimenters subsequently rated responses on a 3-point ordinal scale, where a score of zero indicated no experience of the illusion, one indicated the intermediate-strength illusion that the participants were touching their own nose, and two indicated a stronger sense of illusion that the participants experienced their own nose as stretched in front of their face (MacLachlan, Desmond & Horgan, 2000).

These questions may sound familiar – and we have indeed heard then before, from Rene Descartes, although Descartes, of course, comes up with an entirely different answer to the question of the significance of such phenomena (he does not of course address them directly, but his work can and should be extended to encompass such as argument. The central guiding principles for Descartes’ own life was never to accept as true anything that he had not himself determined to be true. An adherence to this high standard of intellectual activity may be seen to be the central concern and purpose of his Discourse on Method. He begins this work, as others, from a position of methodological doubt, which seems to him to be the most and indeed the only appropriate position from which he might write. The work develops into an investigation into the nature of knowledge and into the ways in which knowledge and doubt are bound to each other and the ways in which the opposite of Truth can be seen in many cases to be not falsity but doubt.

Descartes argues that one cannot be certain of anything until one has doubted it; this might seem to be a contradictory stance but is so only for a moment. We ourselves have each experienced this phenomenon, of doubting something, then determining that it is in fact true, and then believing afterwards in its truth far more profoundly than we would have if we had not had to work out the proof for ourselves. Ramachandran offers the case of phantom pain to be of exactly the same type of experience – with the key difference that we cannot trust even the most intimate sorts of proof.

We may think we have an arm, but we may not. And if certainty cannot be had even in so small a thing as this, then Decartes’s methodic doubt (and by extension, of course, all of Empiricism) is on shaky ground indeed.

It is imperative to note that Descartes’s doubt was not simply that of the cynic but rather what the philosopher termed “methodic doubt,” which was for Descartes a method or way of searching for the certainty of any proposition by beginning with a systematic doubting of every element and aspect of that proposition and then proving or disproving each one of these elements until the proposition as a whole was proven or disproved. This is indeed a push toward simplicity: The world for him consisted of only those things that we had proven to ourselves were true, or combinations of those things.

This is an appealing argument, but Ramachandran (viz. Ramachandran etal, 1992; Fabiani, Stadler & Wessels, 2000) argue that we cannot assume that there is a blank slate with which we set out on the journey of life. We inherent a template that pushes us to accept certain meanings and not others. This is only most obvious in the relatively rare case of phantom limbs (Ramachandran & Blakesee, 1999). But it is just as true – and rather more important, Ramachandran will argue – in the case of other arenas in which our conceptions of the borders of the self affect our conceptions of the reality of things in the world.

This question of where the borders of our bodies lie is taken up by Ramachandran in a fairly literal way in his work on phantom limbs. It is taken up in a slightly more metaphorical way in his work with Blakesee on the location of God. This may seem to For the neurologist – along with the psychologist, and indeed the rest of us as well – the question about the nature of humanity and divinity should perhaps not be “Does God exist?” But “Where does God exist?” Is he (or she or they, depending upon one’s pantheon) something real and external, or a product of our immensely busy human brain?

Descartes, as we all know, begins his philosophical journey by doubting everything. He argues that we must begin with a blank slate, not taking the nature of any object or its relationship to any other object on faith. We must treat the objects in the world as we treat a geometrical problem: We must prove everything. However, having initially dismissed the world and everything in it to the regions of doubtful (non)-existence, Descartes immediately sets out on a quest to reclaim them and our knowledge of them. He begins this question to understand the nature and reality of external objects with an examination of the nature of internal objects in the form of the content of his own thoughts.

He is reassured – at least in largest measure – about the reality of these thoughts because among these thoughts of his is the idea of a Perfect Being (whom Descartes believes to be the Christian God but who might well be some other form of perfect being without any substantial alteration of Cartesian argument). Descartes then makes what seems to be a rather long leap of faith in arguing that the idea that he has (internally) of a Perfect Being serves as proof of the fact that there must in fact be something real that exists outside himself that corresponds in a direct way to this idea.

In other words, Descartes begins his defense of the real existence of objects in the external world by arguing that God (as a Perfect Being and so something that would otherwise be outside of our limited minds) must exist in reality and not merely have a form of mental reality. Another way of saying this is that no human being (since humans are imperfect) could conceive of the idea of (an external) perfect God without there being an actual external perfect God that exists. This is – although it may not be obvious from first inspection of this argument – an argument for the centrality of simplicity. The idea of perfection is an inherently simple one: The perfect thing is irreducible; it is the definition of simplicity.

While it was at least seemingly easy for Descartes to move from a methodical doubting of everything to an acceptance of the external existence of God and from there to an acceptance of the external existence of other things, including people and trees, this should not be such a smooth transition for us because the nature of Descartes’ ontological argument is highly circular and so in fact should prove less than fully convincing to us.

Descarte’s ontological argument – which lies at the heart of his entire philosophical method – is an attempt to reduce the world to the simplest possible description without violating the reality of the world. Descartes argues that a simple description of the complexities of the world is possible because such a description focuses on the essential, on the divinity that lies at the heart of world and that – because of its perfection – is irreducible to anything simpler.

Descartes’ argument is based in his idea that a Perfect Being (whom he calls God) exists. Second, God must therefore exist because if he did not, he would not be perfect. Third, if he were not perfect, Descartes could not conceive of him because no imperfect human can conceive of any perfect being without taking this conception as a demonstration of the a priori existence of that being. Fourth, because God is perfect, he does not lie. Fifth, because God does not lie to humans like Descartes, Descartes’ own ability to sense the functioning of his mind and to determine the existence of God and therefore of other external objects proves the existence of that mind, of God and of the entire external world.

This series of steps of reasoning is referred to as the ontological argument, and it should be clear how central it is to the entire framework of Descartes’ rationalist philosophy because it is the first step in establishing that a human being can have certain knowledge about something real that exists in the external world with no other proof about its existence than the human ability to reason from innate ideas. In other words, Descartes is here arguing for the existence of God, arguing for the existence in fact of an entire external world and arguing against all of the precepts of Empiricism, for Descartes (as a central part of this ontological argument) argues that one can determine the nature of the external world through the basis of purely internal (i.e. innate) mental processes; one needs no sensory experience of the external world to know that it is real.

This is, indeed, very neatly argued, but it is also very much a circular argument; indeed one of the most famous refutations of Descartes’ ontological argument is called Arnauld’s Cartesian Circle because it emphasizes the essentially iterative nature of Descartes’ arguments. Arnauld argued that the simplicity that lies at the heart of Descartes’ arguments derives not from the soundness of the argument but from its circularity. Descartes’ description of the world and our place in it is so simple, Arnauld (and others) object because it touches on so little of the world itself. But while we may find problems in his central argument, Descartes himself saw it as a pathway to simplicity.

In other words, while Descartes argues that the existence of God in reality can be determined from the fact that people can have an a priori concept of a perfect being, Arnauld argues that Descartes is in fact beginning his argument by positing the reality both of the concept of God and of his truthfulness. He is not proving one from the other as a good mathematician should, but merely assuming the existence in certain forms of his basic arguments. It is acceptable to assume the nature of a line and a point; one may not, however, assume that two lines are parallel. One has to prove a proposition of this nature. Descartes has assumed rather than proven his argument.

Thus it may certainly be argued that Descartes (while one must think that he had satisfactorily proven to himself the external existence of God) did not succeed in proving the existence of God to others. This is a different question of whether he proved the existence of his own self; it is quite possible for a modern critic of Descartes to believe in the reality of the philosopher himself – perhaps through extrapolation of the fact that we believe ourselves to exist – without believing his proof of the existence of God or indeed any other proof offered of the existence of God. God and Descartes are not, after all and in spite of what he himself believed, the same sort of ontological beings in the real world. The argument that Descartes makes about the nature of the self is indeed a philosophically simple one in ways in which his argument about the nature and existence of God is not.

Of course, it may be true that God exists both external to ourselves and within our own minds in the same way that phantom pain may exist both in the mind and the brain (Ramachandran & Blakesee, 1999) but Ramachandran (as well as Craig & Rollman, 1999) suggest that it is more likely that God is a function of the ways in which our brains work in exactly the same way that phantom pain is a function of the way in which our brains work. We can, he argues, learn a great deal about the entirety of the great questions of ontology through the study of something that few of us will ever experience.

Ramachandran, in a beguilingly simple way, suggests that our brain is capable of creating ideas about a number of things that do not actually exist in the real world, and because of this fact we should not assume that simply because we can conceive of the idea of a god means that one actually exists.

In linking the importance of bodily sensation to larger philosophical issues of reality, Ramachandran and Blakesee (1999) give as an example of the brain’s ability to deny what is true in the real world (to create its own realities) the example of a woman who is paralyzed along her entire left side because of a stroke and yet who believes that she sees and feels the left side of her body working perfectly well. Given this level of denial – or creative restructuring of the world – we should hardly be surprised that people can project an image of divinity from their neurons onto the heavens.

Ramachandran’s arguments about the possible purely neurological basis for a belief in the existence of God stands as a refutation to some of the most important philosophical attempts to demonstrate God’s existence. We may look at these now as a counterpoint to Ramachandran’s biological essentialist argument about the ways in which people (believe) that they sense God’s presence in the world.

It is interesting to note that many theists believe that it is impossible to prove the existence of God, allying us with those theists who believe that it may be possible but believe that it would most certainly not be desirable. Those who hold to this latter opinion generally argue that any attempt to prove the existence of God – even if it were to be successful – would necessarily undermine the very nature of faith. (For if proof of God’s existence were to be obtained, than the entire relationship between humans and God – based as it is on faith, or belief in things unseen, would be transformed.) While this is a fascinating argument, this paper focuses arguing that there is in fact no way to prove (or for that matter to disprove) God’s existence. Ramachandran might well approve of this argument, for it can be read as support of his own potential findings – God cannot be proven to exist because he is simply the product of our minds, the same minds that have also produced the idea of the importance of an objective reality.

Thus Ramachandran (along with his different collaborators) argues that there is only doubt – real doubt, not methodological doubt. In (more or less accord) Tillich (1999) argues that there are no “ontological” proofs (either positive or negative) of God’s existence (for “ontological” one might substitute “a priori”). This makes the argument for an atheist rather easy, for it is easier to argue that something that has no proof of existing does not in fact exist than it is to argue that something that has no proof of existing does exist. Ramachandran, like most other scientists, would agree with this.

Descartes, in his Meditations offers one way to prove the existence of God, but Ramachadran’s work is a direct refutation of this proof, as noted above. Descartes argues that we must begin the exercise of philosophical inquiry into the existence of God with a blank slate. We cannot make any a priori assumptions either about the nature of any object nor about its relationship to any other object. However, after having told us that we cannot take anything on faith, Descartes proceeds to do precisely this. Descartes argues that 1) he is himself imperfect, 2) that he can conceive of a perfect God, 3) that imperfect beings cannot conceive of perfection without having had that idea implanted by a perfect being, and so, therefore, 4) God exists.

At the crux of the flaw here is that Descartes does not explain how he, as an imperfect human, truly knows whether his idea of a perfect God is truly an idea about perfection or not – because humans cannot with their imperfect minds fully grasp perfection.

Ramachandran would further argue that both the idea of perfection and the idea of God are easily created by the complex tangle of human neurons – and rather an easier task in many ways than it is for the stroke-paralyzed women to see herself as entirely cured although not in an entirely different arena – as the experiment with the mirror box suggests. Our brains are full of imps – or electrical impulses – that create an impenetrable barrier between perception and reality.

We may consider the arguments of two more philosophers about God before returning to the crux of the importance of Ramachandran’s fascination with phantom limbs. George Berkeley, in his Theory of Knowledge, offers a slightly different model that sounds surprisingly modern to us still, and indeed in keeping with the kinds of biological arguments that Ramachandran and Sacks make. Berkeley argues that in fact nothing whatsoever exists in the real world except for the minds and spirits of humans – and possibly the minds and spirits of other creatures. He also argues that we as people use our senses to detect and experience things external to our own bodies. Thus Berkeley argues that the world and all of its parts have in fact no independent existence. They do not have a life apart from our human (or giraffe or hamster) perception of them.

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that Berkeley is not in any way arguing the world or the things in it do not exist. He is instead arguing that they may exist or they may not. But he is adamant in his argument that the world and its accouterments do not exist independently of our perceptions of them. (Although he is concerned primarily with sense perceptions, we may argue that these are epistemologically – as well as in many ways biologically – analogous to the neurological activity that Ramachandran is focusing on.)

Thus, according to Berkeley God may well exist, but we cannot do prove his existence any more than we can prove that that tree falling in that uninhabited forest has made its proverbial sound.

Hume’s arguments are similar to Berkeley’s, for he also argues that our knowledge of the world begins with our sensory experiences of them. However, Hume is more concerned with the way in which we make (or rather the ways in which we cannot make) causal connections between events: Hume (1987) argues that we can at most describe events as being highly positively correlated with other events. Hume does not believe that as humans we have the capability to connect one event to another in a cause-and-effect fashion.

While I am not certain that Ramachandran would go as far as Hume seems delighted to stroll down this particular garden path, I do believe that this line of thinking has merit in demonstrating why God may either be real or may be just a neurological fancy that is precisely analogous to phantom limbs. Descartes argued that once one made that initial causal connection between the idea of an ideal being and the fact that that ideal being had implanted that thought that all other causal connections could easily be made.

But I do not believe that every causal connection can in fact be so easily made: We cannot in fact assume that God exists simply because we exist and we believe that he brought about the world. We cannot assume – and here Ramachandran would side with Hume against Descartes – that there is any causal connection between the watch and the watchmaker, or between God and ourselves.

Ramanchandran provides us with a neurological model that explains why people around the world and across the centuries believe in the existence of God. This does not prove that God exists, nor it prove that God does not exist. What it does prove it that if God does not exist then our neurons are quite capable of having invented him in precisely the same way that people feel limbs long gone or believe their own noses to have grown.


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Fabiani, M. Stadler, M. & Wessels. Peter. (2000, 1 November.) “True But Not False Memories Produce a Sensory Signature in Human Lateralized Brain Potentials.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12 (6): 941.

Hume, D. (1987). Essays: Moral, political, and literary. New York: Liberty Fund.

MacLachlan, Desmond, D., Horgan, O. (2003, 1 January) “The animacy of mind.” Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development 40 (1): 59-65.

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