Autism, the Neurotypical Brain and Philosophy

Autism, the Neurotypical Brain and Philosophy April 3, 2016

I recently posted on the topic of mentalizing deficits and using this as an example of God’s unfairness, and thus arguing that either God does not exist, or he is not all-loving.

I used the term “mentalizing deficit” as it was the term used in the paper to which I was referring. A commenter there, Michael Neville, stated this:

As a high functioning autistic (HFA) I have ask how “our reality” differs from the reality I see?

I’m not being snarky about this, obviously you believe that autistics perceive reality differently from non-autistics. I know that I have problems with oral communication, emotional expression and recognition, and social interaction that other people don’t have. But are these things connected with reality? For me reality is how the world (assume when I say “world” that I’m including the wider universe) functions, how various parts of the world interact (think ecology writ very large), and how science can interpret the world. Since humans are part of the world, then they (we) are part of reality.

Here, he uses the term “high functioning autistic (HFA)”. Both terms refer to a sort of optimal functioning. One claims a deficit, the other claims by implication that to have HFAs, one must have low functioning autistics, and these, one presumes, are set against neurotypical people.

All this revolves around a norm – a neurotypical person. This, to me, bespeaks of a norm by consensus. What your average or typical functioning brain does, or acts like, in most cases. Those that are different, in any clearly discernible way, therefore, are not typical.

This doesn’t, at least on face value, mean there is a value judgement involved. There is not, prima facie, a better brain. Better depends on function. I have talked about this in relation to God and perfection. At the moment, these brains are merely different. When we talk of better (and I want to move away from value judgements of autistics for the moment), this requires having a goal. For example, a rugby ball is better for playing rugby than a golf ball. In fact, it was designed for that, or at least evolved into that shape through time.

In the same way, we can say that the human brain evolved as being fit for purpose, over time, to function in the way it does. One could then conclude that certain configurations of the brain are better than others. This would be in terms of survival and sexual reproduction (including sex/mate selection). These are not intrinsic value judgements, but functional value judgements. A rugby ball is not intrinsically better than a golf ball, or vice versa. They are different and can only be assigned value judgements when considering goals.

Let’s apply this to the brain. Any given brain, then, can only be assigned value judgements when considering goals. If the goal is to survive longer, or to produce attractive behaviours, then we could make such judgements (being careful to qualify them only in terms of the goal). In other words, one must really say, to be accurate, that brain A is better than brain B if you want to achieve scenario X.

I am not here to say that autistic brains are better than neurotypical brains or vice versa. Firstly, it probably isn’t helpful. Secondly, it also depends on the goal. Evolutionary pressures and successes are not the only goals open to humanity. We are at a point when such pressures are less obvious, or the old pressures are not necessarily the new ones. We are not fighting the food chain on the Serengeti.

I am sure that in the academic literature and particular disciplines that “high functioning” is defined much more closely than an arbitrary sort of generalistic sense. Whose reality is better is clearly a subjective one, if senses and feelings are involved. That I feel my life is great in no way enables to me to say it is better than a comparable (ie socio-demographics, quality of life etc) autistic or, indeed, anyone else (in feeling). My reality is different to an HFA’s, and to anyone else. I am my own experience machine, after all.

As Michael continued:

In order to have meaningful conversations about differences, we do need to be able to label things, and these often sit on a continuum. These are, at definitional level, arbitrary labels. There are no such things as species in the slowly transitional continua of evolutionary change. But we ascribe to continua labels that split up the line into categorisable chunks. See my writings on the Sorites paradox.

Personally I am inspired by music (I’m listening to Ravel’s “Bolero” as I write this). I’ve recently reread The Brothers Karamazov (David McDuff’s translation, though I prefer Constance Garnett’s) and derived considerable pleasure from it. I’m presently reading Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold(the character Friendly is an HFA). While not trained as a scientist I read science books for pleasure and information and to understand the world better. So what parts of reality am I missing?

I cannot, without doing some research, say exactly what Michael is missing, if anything. There will be a difference in certain interpretative qualities. For example if you watch episode 5 of David Eagleman’s excellent documentary series on the brain

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V–a7oHB_T4

you will see the chap with Asperger’s who was unable to read expressions (qua people) and late in life was given some TMS (transcranial stimulation) as part of an experiment, and then suddenly could. Experimenters are presently unsure as to why this happened, but it did. So he was able to recognise a lacking in his neural and intuitive toolbox as he experienced both scenarios. One can claim that this is better for socialisation and interaction, hence why such abilities evolved; but, likewise, it may hinder some in doing certain other jobs and tasks. I remember listening to a BBC Radio 4 programme on autism, and there was a man with AS who was talking about the type of job (I think in nuclear physics, or something) that would have been much harder for a neurotypical person. He staked a claim that many of the great minds who achieved so much in our scientific feats of endeavour were somewhere on the spectrum; that we need to be thankful of the many AS people working hard in certain jobs that the more socially functioning human would be less able to do.

Empathy is often the key area (as it was with the research in my other post) that underlines differences (and this can depend on reading facial cues, etc.). I have taught many children all over the spectrum and with certain children, there has been an obvious lacking of empathy compared with other children, with the whole enterprise being a cognitive journey, rather than an intuitive one.

On this subject of empathy, Marja Erwin, on the other post, stated:

Lost me at empathy.

Half the time empathy seems to refer to the ability to read minds. Autistic people do have trouble reading allistic people’s minds. Allistic people also have trouble reading autistic people’s minds.

Half the time empathy seems to refer to concern for other people. Autistic people have the same range from compassion to cruelty as allistic people.

Given the double meaning, the suggestion that we lack empathy conflates autism with sociopathy, helps dehumanize us they way our society also dehumanizes sociopaths if they aren’t rich and powerful, helps excuse systemic violence against us, and helps excuse eugenicist hate-groups trying to eliminate us.

That such claims may lead to some autistics claim that they are being dehumanised is a real shame, but does not take away from the truth of the claim. One theory for the lacking in empathetic skills is a dysfunctional mirror neuron set up. Mirror neurons are those that fire when we see someone else do something that make us feel like we are doing the action. This, it is proposed, is the basis of empathy., and allows for the itersubjectivity of putting ourselves in “someone else’s shoes”. The nonconscious brain is doing a lot of work in the background. for certain autistics, this function has to be taken on and learnt cognitively or consciously.

Hopefully, greater understanding of all of our brains won’t lead to dehumanising portions of our society, but will enable better integration and functioning of society as a whole.

To conclude to my ramblings, though, the levels of functioning depend upon what the tasks and goals are.


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