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Homunculus fallacies

By Timothy Cocks Metaphor and language 03 Feb 2014

I hear it more and more these days; “the brain thinks…..”, “the brain decides…” I hear myself saying it too.

But can brains think?

I’ve been wanting to write something on the topic but then came across the following blog post by James Shelley which says it so well and concisely.

Neuroscience is Cool. But You Will Never Meet a Brain.

“The homunculus fallacy is a term coined by philosopher Anthony Kenny (b. 1931). (Kenny 1984:125)

We commit the fallacy when we imagine that individual parts of our body can do the work of a whole body…

“Here is another example: neuroscience demonstrates that the hippocampus plays an important role in memory consolidation and retention. However, it would be a fallacy to assert, “My hippocampus remembers.” You remember. Your hippocampus does not remember anything by itself, it is only part of your ability as an organism to recall past experiences. Sure, the hippocampus is activated when you remember — but take the hippocampus out of your brain and it is only an unattractive little lump of inert tissue.

Remember: you’ve never met a brain, only other persons. For as interesting as neuroscience is, it is just another homunculus fallacy to say that we are our brains. As fascinating as it is to learn about how the brain works, the brain is nothing without the kidneys, heart, liver, and lungs.

You are all of you. There can be no other way to define you.”

Of course, if one asserts that brains don’t think, what exactly is it that brains do?



  1. Dear friend, Thank you very much, I’ve visited your blog, read an article that is quite interesting, makes me really happy to have been following your blog and you are an awesome blogger, full Inspiring and hope you can inspire more readers. Thank you and best regards from Gede Prama affection 🙂

    1. timcocks0noi

      Hi Gede Prama. Thank you for your very kind words.

  2. adambjerre

    Hi Tim.

    That might perhaps be one of the most intriguing questions in philosophy and cognitive science and sort of represent the middle fuzzy part of Melzack’s Neuromatrix-illustration.

    The tricky thing about the homunculus fallacy is that it might not be such a fallacy after all.
    Daniel Dennett writes this in his rebuttal to Bennett and Hacker’s “Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience” (Blackweel, 2003) who advance the mereological fallacy in their book:
    “Far from it being a *mistake* to attribute hemi-semi-demi-proto-quasi-pseudo intentionality to the mereological parts of persons, it is precisely the enabling move that lets us see how on earth to get whole wonderful persons out of brute mechanical parts.” (Philosophy as Naïve Anthropology, 2005)

    Practically we commit the so-called fallacy on an everyday basis when we invoke belief-talk and desire-talk to computers, computer programs, cells and our electronic gadgets in the house (the thermostat has a “belief” that either meets its “desire” or doesn’t). So is it a fallacy? Or is it our way of attributing an agency of sorts to parts and systems to help us make predictions and formulate working hypotheses about those parts and systems?

    Dennett thinks the latter.
    His thinking tools about “The Personal and Subpersonal Distinction”, “The Intentional Stance” (agency talk par excellence) and “The Sorta Operator” are, IMO, useful tools in explaining – and therefore understanding – these complex issues.

    Regarding your last question:
    Andy Clark, Karl Friston and Jakob Hohwy among others thinks that “the brain” predicts – “higher level systems attempt to predict the inputs from lower-level systems on the basis of their own emerging models of the causal structures in the world. Errors in predicting lower level inputs cause the higher-level models to adapt so as to reduce the discrepancy.”

    The take homes messages for me regarding the above is:
    1. Pain is nowhere to be found on, to use Dennett’s distinction, the subpersonal level. Pain doesn’t refer to atoms, molecules, substances, cells, cell structures or systems of cells. Talk of pains is non-mechanical. “I feel pain; my brain doesn’t.”
    2. But what about those parts? We have to link the personal and subpersonal level if we want to avoid invoking some mysteriousness or kind of wonder tissue or life force that is enabling the talents and abilities (including the curse of chronic pain) that distinguishes us from other mammals and critters (our linguistic abilities is of particular importance here).
    3. If we keep putting forward the homunculus fallacy we might just postpone explanations of how consciousness and pain can emerge from subpersonal parts and nothing else.
    4. On a daily basis I don’t interact with any of the subpersonal parts – I interact with a whole person in what Quintner et al. has called “The Third Space”. I’m not an operator, I’m an interactor – as Diane Jacobs would say.

    Thank you for your great blogposts.

    1. timcocks0noi

      Hey Adam
      Thank you very much for dropping by and commenting. Love your take home messages – especially interacting with a whole person.

      I’ve come to think that philosophy has a lot to offer neuroscience- a magnificent unsundering of first and third person, of the subjective and objective.

      Alva Noë is keen to point out that a lot of neuroscience is undertaken based on unexamined epistemology and ontology of the researcher.

      Such a ripe field of endeavour though. Given that we still haven’t “found” pain, even thought we’ve gone down to the level of the individual ion channel in dorsal horn neurons, maybe it’s time to step back and take another, broader, more philosophical look.


  3. Hi Tim,

    Who thinks? ‘I’ is the one that thinks, (therefore ‘I’ exists). What is the ‘I’ other than consciousness? ‘I’ can’t be the mind or body, because I can observe both of these. I can’t be what I observe, unless? ….. nahh! I am consciousness. Although the ‘I’ disappears into god-knows-where if I look at it too intently. Good practice though.

    Does the brain create consciousness or does consciousness create the brain (and body)? Some say the latter, though such people will tell us it has to be experienced to know for sure.

    [Finally I found a use for my Facebook account].

    1. timcocks0noi

      Hey EG
      What a tangle we get ourselves into with words and language!
      What if the ‘bodymind’ is the thinking, conscious entity? Noë likes to say that “consciousness is the way that the animal is in the world”, that consciousness arises/emerges from a dynamic interaction between the embodied mind of the animal situated in an environment. This explanation does’t need a thinking/conscious ‘thing’ *inside* the animal as the animal *is* the thinking/conscious thing – consciousness is something that the animal does, something it achieves rather than something that happens inside of it.
      What a tangle we get ourselves into with words and language…
      Thanks for stopping by

      1. Hi Tim,

        I try to be precise with words, but yeh…. hard to do with these tricky topics!

        Regarding Noe’s words, I think the “embodied mind” is a good description of the self or ego, but not consciousness itself. Consciousness which becomes identified with the body (at around age 2), will cause the self/ego to emerge. Prior to that, the baby is just pure consciousness, with no identification of ‘me’ and ‘other’. The baby is just a body-mind with no ‘owner/operator’. There’s just aspects of “one thing”, and one of these aspects is the body-mind of the baby. Other aspects of the “one thing” would be ‘toys’, ‘blanket’, ‘house’, ‘doggy’ and so on.

        I don’t think either the body or mind can be the thinking conscious entity, because I can observe both of them. Anything I can observe cannot simultaneously be ‘me’. If I can observe the body, how can I simultaneously be the body? I can also observe my mind, so the same question would arise – how can I be that which I am observing? The process of observation separates the subject ‘I’ from the object being observed.

        I [subject] ……. observe {verb]……. my mind {object].

        So the question would remain – what on earth is this ‘I’ I keep referring to? Scientists don’t seem to like this question, because it requires them to look inside. Scientists like to look outside of themselves for answers.

        Of course a strong ego is important for health (just to change topic). The strongest ego’s always have very healthy body-minds.



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