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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Deeper is Higher - Part VI

"By a "silly" theory I mean one which may be held at the time when one is talking or writing professionally, but which only an inmate of a lunatic asylum would think of carrying into daily life. I should count Behaviourism, taken quite strictly... as "silly" in this sense. No one in his senses can in practice regard himself or his friends or enemies simply as ingenious machines produced by other machines ... It must not be supposed that the men who maintain these theories and believe that they believe them are "silly" people. Only very acute and learned men could have thought of anything so odd or defended anything so preposterous against the continual protests of common-sense" (C.D. Broad, Mind and It's Place in Nature).

"We regard promissory materialism as superstition without a rational foundation... [It] is simply a religious belief held by dogmatic materialists...who often confuse their religion with their science" (Sir John Eccles and Daniel N. Robinson, The Wonder of Being Human, pg. 36)

"The current belief that all mental processes are unconscious is so obviously contrary to experience that it can be regarded simply as a symptom of the metaphysical miasma induced by overexposure to scientific materialism" (B. Alan Wallace, The Taboo of Subjectivity, pg. 81)

Philosophy of the Mind

After our excursions into paranormal psychology - Telepathy, Psychokinesis, Out-of-Body Experiences, Near-death Experiences, and Memories of Past Lives - we now (re)turn to normal consciousness. But, as we shall see, there is something mysterious and mystical about consciousness as well; most people are just unaware of their awareness, unconscious of their consciousness, unmindful of their mind to realize this fundamental truth. So let us begin by defining and delineating the ineffability of consciousness.


Consciousness refers to subjective experience and awareness. The data that is processed by one's consciousness is multi-faceted:

1) Sensory phenomenon: We experience sensations, we can relive these sensory experiences through memory, and we have the ability to imagine new sensory phenomenon built upon our experiences in the past. These experience have an irreducibly subjective - a first-person -quality to them (Qualia).

2) Cognitive system: We have the ability to conceive, remember, imagine, reason abstractly, and communicate meaningful concepts.

3) Self-identity: The “I” experiences these sensory phenomenon, it focuses attention, accesses one’s own internal state, judges and reasons, plans and executes intentions, and it chooses freely. It is the "center" of our consciousness, the unitary identity which is stable throughout one's life.

These are undeniable facts of human experience. Yet, there is another undeniable fact of human existence - the brain.

The Brain

Long before Pineas Gage and the Decade of the Brain humanity was aware of the importance of the brain in human functioning. Nevertheless, in our day the focus on the brain has been intensified as we have uncovered the "neural correlates" to certain cognitive and emotional functions. Furthermore, we now understand many disorders or illnesses, like strokes, from a neurological perspective (My Stroke of Insight is an interesting book about a neuroscientist who had a stroke). Furthermore, Split-brain experiments question the unity of consciousness. Lastly, the heart-wrenching Alzheimer's disease makes us question the nature of our very self.


Thus we have arrived at what is known as the "hard problem" of consciousness. On one hand we have subjective-mental experiences of sensory phenomenon, cognitive processes, and our very own self, and, yet, on the other hand we know that without the physical brain these experiences would not be possible. Let us take a brief look at some of the solutions.

1. Eliminative Materialism – There is no such thing as a mind, not even an illusion, and eventually the terms "mind," "consciousness," "self," will be eliminated from our vocabulary.
2. Epiphenomenalism -Our experience is merely a product of the brain-body processes. It is an illusion that the mind affects the brain-body.
Psychophysical Identity Theory – The mind exists but is completely parallel to and influenced by the brain states like two sides of the same coin. The mind does not influence the brain.
Mentalism – Mental processes and consciousness arise from brain activity (emergent) but now that they actually exist they can influence the brain (dynamic).
Substance Dualism/Cartesian Dualism – Mind and matter are two entirely separate substances, and the mind cannot be reduced to a non-mental explanation. Nevertheless, there is an interaction between mental processes and neural events.

The Problems of Materialism

The problems with all reductionist-materialistic approaches are manifold.

1) It is very difficult to conceive of how consciousness - which from our experience is utterly different than matter - could have and does emerge from matter. Theorists, including Francis Crick, like to speculate about the "neural correlates of consciousness" (I counted about twenty such theories) but, to quote Roy Abraham Varghese, in The Wonder of the World, "the best that a theory like Crick's can do is show that certain mental processes can be correlated with certain brain activities, but such a theory can't and doesn't pretend to show why there's subjective experience that accompanies the physical operation. Crick admits that he has no answer to the question of what causes the specific experience of being conscious...[W]e have no idea where sentience, i.e. what consciousness feels like on the inside, came from. Nor do we know how or why" (pg. 301).

Furthermore, even if one were to posit that mind did emerge from matter we would have no parallel in nature for such an event. As B. Alan Wallace notes "At present there is no technology that can detect the presence or absence of any kind of consciousness, for scientists do not even know what exactly is to be measured...If mental phenomena are in fact nothing more than emergent properties and functions of the brain, their relation to the brain is fundamentally unlike every other emergent property and function found in nature" (Quoted in The Spiritual Brain, pg. 109).

On this basis, David Chalmers (see here and here) has concluded that the hard problem ("why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life") is currently unsolvable within the current scientific framework. Some quantum physicists are calling for a complete overhaul of scientific worldview.

2) The existence of the self is equally as baffling and awe-inspiring. In the words of Mike Gazzaniga, the fact that we interact with others [besides ourselves!] and do not think of it as brains talking to other brains is "the deep mystery of neuroscience, and no one has touched it yet" (Quoted in Varghese, There is Life After Death, pg. 196).

Some maintain that there is no "I" - there are only brain-states or person-phases. Steven Pinker argues that this is incoherent since we have only one body and multiple agents would make it impossible for us to function since there is no unifier.

Furthermore, there is no one part of the brain where the self is located. Where are YOU located? And to top it off - within each neuron, the molecules are replaced approximately 10,000 times in a a life span (The Spiritual Brain, pg. 114), and, as Radin formulates it, "All of the material used to express that pattern has disappeared, and yet the pattern still exists. What holds the pattern, if not matter? This question is not easily answered by the assumptions of a mechanistic, purely materialistic science" (Conscious Universe, pg. 259).

The self also has the ability to (apparently) choose freely. To deny this can only be preached, not practiced. There is a long history to this debate and I only quote one interesting argument from John Searle. In Rationality in Action he argues that the illusion of free-will would not have an evolutionary advantage. The reasons for a decision are experienced as not a sufficient cause for the decision. We choose to act on the reasons. There is a gap in the causation between the reasons and the action. The responsibility for the action is due to a continuing conscious self that makes the choice and experiences the results. If the underlying neuro-physiology is deterministic, then the experience of the gap is an illusion, then the conscious response to the gap has no real effect on the action – it is a systematic property of the brain as a whole that is an "epiphenomenon." Evolution would not have produced that. Therefore, the underlying neuro-physiology must be indeterministic.

Lastly, Jeffrey Shwartz has demonstrated in his work with OCD, that one - through conscious volition - can actually change brain functioning (Neuroplasticity). This, he argues, is a clear example of "mind over matter," and is thus fatal to Materialism.

3) The existence of thought is the next manifestation of a trans-physical reality. To quote Varghese, "We may see neural activity, but that's not the same thing as seeing the thought in the mode we experience it...when we perceive a neural firing in the brain, we perceive a physical process, rather than that which we experience on the inside as a thought...Most important of all, it's the thoughts that drive the corresponding neural transactions and not the other way around. There is no chicken or egg question here. The thought comes first and, as a result, causes certain brain events" (The Wonder of the World, pgs. 56-57).

Furthermore, the ability to conceive of abstract concepts deals a further blow to Materialism. We have the unique ability to produce a concept that does not refer to a specific physical thing or being. The ideas of justice or mathematical abstractions do not correlate with our sensory experience or have a physical counterpart. Mark Steiner has discussed mathematics in this context at length. Also see Avakesh.

The Problem of Trans-physical Explanations

One problem with trans-physical explanation is that Materialism promises, based on previous successes, to eventually explain everything within the standard scientific framework. They argue that resorting to a trans-physical explanation is just another example of "the god of the gaps" phenomena.

However, the main problem with trans-physical non-reductionist approaches is that it is difficult to conceive of how the mind interacts with matter (mind-body problem). David Chalmers has responded to this objection as follows: It is sometimes objected that distinct physical and mental states could not interact, since there is no causal nexus between them. But one lesson from Hume and from modern science is that the same goes for any fundamental causal interactions, including those found in physics...there is no need for a causal nexus distinct from the physical and mental properties themselves."

The next post in this series will suggest what some Jewish approaches are to the mind and the mind-body problem.

1 comment:

What was done said...

Here is a kind of life after death you can be sure of...