30 June, 2022


The Proper Study Of Mankind

By Carlo Fonseka

Celebrating the Silver Jubilee of the Physiological Society of Sri Lanka

Prof. Carlo Fonseka

“What a piece of work is a man…, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals…” marvelled Shakespeare’s Hamlet. For me, a man, a fortiori a woman, is not only the beauty of the world, but also the perpetual wonder of the world. At the heart of this wonder is the human brain, the quintessence of living, organized dust.

Philosophy & Physiology

Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), the universally acknowledged father of modern Western philosophy, began to philosophize— as a proper philosopher should— by doubting everything, including the fact of his own existence. Agonizing about this philosophical doubt, he suddenly realised that to doubt was to think. He figured out that thinking was proof that there must be something that thinks. He jumped to the inevitable conclusion that he must be the “something that thinks”. “Cogito, ergo, sum”, “I think, therefore, I am”, he triumphantly declared. Rene Descartes, however, was a philosopher and not a physiologist. Philosophy consists of speculations about matters concerning which definite scientific knowledge is not yet available. For example, it was the Greek philosopher Aristarchus who first propounded the hypothesis that the earth orbits the sun and not the other way round, as was universally believed at that time. Later on, when science confirmed his speculation, the view that the earth orbits the sun became part of science. Thus, as Bertrand Russell once quipped, Science is what we know; Philosophy is what we still don’t know for sure. What we don’t know for sure may, of course, be wrong. What we know for sure is knowledge; more precisely, scientific knowledge.


The science of modern physiology has established beyond a whisper of doubt that it is with the brain that we think, we think. The brain of the paragon of animals— man—has, perhaps, the unique capacity to think about itself, as it thinks about itself. This is by virtue of its phenomenal capacity called ‘consciousness’. Consciousness enables us not only to know; but also to know that we know. Perhaps more accurately, it enables us to know that we don’t know and to know that we don’t know. By imaging techniques, modern physiology has reached the solid, evidence-based conclusion that thinking and feeling occur in specific regions of the brain.

Father of Western Medicine

Without the benefit of imaging techniques, Hippocrates of Cos (460BC- 370BC), the Father of Western medicine, declared: “Men ought to know that from the human brain and from the brain only arises our pleasures, joys, laughter, and jests as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs, and tears… It is the same thing which makes us mad or delirious, inspires us with dread and fear, whether by night or by day, brings us sleeplessness, inopportune mistakes, aimless anxieties, absent-mindedness and acts that are contrary to habit…”. The message is as clear as it can possibly be: if as Alexander Pope famously said, “the proper study of mankind is Man”, then we must, above all, study how the human brain works. That is to say, Human Physiology. For our happiness depends upon our physiology more than we like to think!

Body-Mind Duality

To the question: “Who am I?” Descartes’s answer was, “I am a thinking thing or a Mind”. He went on to identify this mind with his soul and indulge the desperate and fantastic supposition that the soul resided in the pineal gland. He declared: “…. I know that I am a substance whose entire nature is to think and for whose existence there is no need of any place, nor does it depend on any material thing; so that this “me”, that is to say, the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from my body and is even more easy to know than is the latter; and even if the body were not, the soul would not cease to be what it is.” Thus, by his own logic and at least to his own satisfaction, Descartes “proved” the existence of the mind or soul, quite distinct from the brain. This marked the formal philosophical beginning of dualism in Western philosophy. Directly or indirectly, under Descartes’s influence, physiologists are still living who, on one premise or another, subscribe to his dualistic view. On the assumption that the human mind is intrinsically incapable of understanding itself, they believe that physiology will never be able to explain fully the human mind in terms of brain physiology. This is the great challenge confronting modern physiology.


The proper study of mind must necessarily begin with the study of the physiology of the brain, which now rejoices under the title “Neural Science”. In addition to neurophysiology, it involves the study of neuro-anatomy, molecular biology, embryology, cell biology, and psychology or cognitive science. This comprehensive approach is leading inexorably to the conclusion that all human behaviour represents the expression of brain physiology; and that what we commonly call the mind is simply a set of operations carried out by the brain. I am not a prophet of any sort; but I will say with prophetic conviction that when the Physiological Society of Sri Lanka celebrates its Golden Jubilee, the conclusion: “no brain, no mind” would be old hat. Check me for accuracy in 2037.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Ignorance and fraud goes hand in hand- Carl Jung the 3 faces of man. Have fun with no hat for x’mas what? No Prof;)

  • 0

    Prof Carlo’s piece makes good reading, as does everything he writes, but he did not touch on one matter, which an avowed Marxist (or nearly so), should have. Knowledge and understanding are not only located in the brain they are also social constructions. Take the simplest, the sine qua non of all knowledge, language. Could language have come into being except as the common activity of many persons, living together and interacting in communities? The very question is oxymoronic.

    A process is involved; that’s why I said “not ONLY located in the brain”. Linguistic sophistication in pre-humans and humans evolved over millennia in symbiosis with selection mechanisms. An up and down effect, a dialectical relationship with physiological evolution. What must be true of the parts of the brain related to language (I do not know the correct technical term) is surely true of parts associated with other aspects of cognition.

    I share Prof Carlo’s profound respect for Rene Descartes. Since Marx was lucky to stand on the shoulders of Descartes and other Enlightenment thinkers, he saw a bit further. The point about Cartesian duality was, I think, resolved a long time ago, and to repeat a quote that Carlo must be all too familiar with:

    “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but a practical question. Man must prove the truth — the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking – in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question”.

    Humanity discovers truth in practice. Whether I will break my neck if I jump off the cliff, or whether this is merely a state of mind, is not a question pertaining to duality theory. Mankind discovers the truth by jumping off cliffs, or collectively, by watching others do so. Current research in neural sciences is indeed fascinating; it is complementary to the science of the study of man in society.

  • 0

    Whats this “Proper” label? What’s “Improper” per your expert classification?

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