Sunday, 7 June 2015

Is the physical all there is? Andrew and Bob, part 2

Last Sunday I published a blog that was a conversation between myself and an online friend and music collaborator of mine called Bob. We discussed human being, mind and consciousness, a subject that interests us both greatly. We come at this subject from quite different positions which makes for good conversation and I thought it would be a good idea to make a blog of our first exchange of questions. Bob agreed.

But, of course, it didn't stop there because these are questions about which it is difficult to find ultimately satisfying answers. And so the conversation continues here with part 2 in which we discuss minds and if human beings are entirely physical or if, as Bob contends, there is a non-physical component.

Andrew's Question:

On a material mind.

You argue against "the strictly material approach" to the origin of mind being physical on, what seem to me, to be flawed grounds. You seem to have a number of such grounds, one of which is that you can't understand how it might work. You ask about the brain's electrochemical activity and ask how it can account for the no doubt millions of processes it needs to account for on a constant basis. You say that a brain would likely burn out if asked to carry out this workload alone. I find this response a little puzzling. Let me give you an example of why. Imagine I have a large amount of water and a pipe. I see the water and the pipe. The pipe seems too small. I have no conception of how the water could possibly fit through that pipe all at once. But am I to rule out the possibility of a bigger pipe? Am I to say that a bigger pipe is impossible? Am I to say that no combination of water and pipes would be able to carry out the physical task I have in mind? Or am I to say that because I cannot see how this would work that I should, instead, conceive of a non-material pipe which could do the work of transmitting water for me? It seems to me that, especially since you say you have no idea how the brain's electrochemical activity might work, that you simply have no basis to make the claim that because you don't understand how it happens that you must therefore refute the possibility. As I read your answers, you don't understand completely how the non-material option might work either. And yet this fact does not stop you choosing that. So I think that, to be consistent, not understanding how something works is not a sufficient reason to completely close off that possible solution.

This same issue affects the question "what determines the content of thought?" Now "determines" is one of those words that as a thinker I don't like. It sounds very like determinism and that's not something I'm a fan of. Again, you seem at a loss to give a material response to this question because you don't understand how physical or material processes could achieve it. Now neither do I. But I know that material processes are happening. So I find it entirely plausible, in line with Occam's Razor (the simplest answer is to be preferred), to start there. And, by the way, I don't think I have to say that electrochemical processes are "determinative" for anything either. I am open to the option they are a means for thought to occur with some other, unknown factor or process the originating point instead. I'm also open to the option that, as you say, thinking of blue monkeys is caused by some electrochemical process itself. And I ask "Why can't it be?" It seems to me that you don't answer why it can't be. You just throw your hands up and say it doesn't make sense and you can't understand how it might work. My point is that in order to posit the kind of mind you have chosen to prefer (something I think is an unfounded deus ex machina) I think you need to give some evidence for it and some evidence for why simpler options are not taken up first and, if necessary, dismissed on better grounds than "I don't understand it". It could be argued, I think, that you have simply chosen to prefer a more obscure alternative when you have established no reasonable basis to do so. You start off by suggesting that the mind could be some type of energy or state and these can be conceived of materially. I myself rule neither option out. And I wish you had stuck with that line of thinking.

Bob's Response:

OK, so let's address information processing power, water and pipes. If you do some practice of being aware of your thoughts and their content, there is an insane amount of stuff going on in our brains. The brain is an amazing information processor, but the amount of information is simply staggering. Can you imagine enough pipes in a bio-mechanism the size of a cantaloupe to handle all that and store all the past experiences of your life? If you can, fine, but I find it difficult.

There is a way out of that with a still entirely physical explanation in that perhaps part of the processing is taking part in one of the other dimensions of quantum physics or string theory. This is how physicists now explain the force of gravity, which has an attractive force that is not explainable by the constraints and mathematics of our 3 dimensions. It is out of proportion and doesn't act the way it should (a problem that haunted Einstein). However, if you add the other 7 dimensions mandated by string theory (11 dimensions total), the math works perfectly with part of the force action taking place in another dimension and part here. So I would be comfortable with that as a material way to explain the amounts of processing.

However, information processing is not the same as consciousness. In your blog on Ex Machina,  you argue that Ava is capable of actions motivated by self interest and preservation but is incapable of feeling and emotion and always will be. If Ava has sensory input and information categorization abilities at least as good as ours, why can't she feel emotion? In a materialist framework, you would have to argue that there is a physical component in humans that is missing in machines. If that is so, it should be identifiable. What is it that produces emotion (and identifying the part of the brain that lights up when you're angry or happy is not the same as saying that part is producing emotion)? As T.H. Huxley said, "How is it that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as the result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djinn when Aladdin rubbed the lamp." So, what is the physical origin of emotion and what is the physical necessity and function of it?

(Andrew: I would like to point out here, briefly, that I don't think I do say this about Ava in my blog on Ex Machina. In fact, I say the opposite! I invite readers to read for themselves and decide if I do or not.)

I think this leads us into the non-material mind and I did give 2 pieces of evidence, out of body experiences and past life memories. I left it to you to pursue examples so that I would not guide what you would find. You have not addressed these, so I will give two examples for you to respond to. I was listening to a lecture by a psychiatrist (a podcast of a lecture given this year) who was explaining why he believes the mind is capable of leaving the body. He said that when he was an intern, he was put in charge of the university sleep research lab. Separately from his clinical duties, he met a woman who claimed that she had regularly had out of body experiences during sleep since she was a child. For a long time she thought everybody did that and thought it was normal. As she grew up, she learned not to talk about it, but she said the experiences were still occurring. She was very convincing, he was curious, and he had the perfect lab to scientifically test her. She agreed to come to the lab and he told her all she had to do was get in bed and sleep. After she was in bed, he wrote a random number (selected from a book that was thousands of pages of random numbers spit out from a random number generator) on a piece of paper and placed it on top of a clothes wardrobe too high for her to reach. He told her there was a number on the piece of paper (she's already in bed) and in the morning he would ask her what the number was. She was on camera the whole time and never left the bed, yet every time, time after time, she correctly recited the 5 digit random number that was on the paper. There are other examples you can find.The University of Southampton just completed the largest study of near death experiences (including near death out of body experiences). 

For past life memory, I'll use the example of the Dalai Lama. Dalai Lama is not a hereditary title. After a Dalai Lama dies, the next one needs to be found and tested to make sure he is a continuation of the same mind. The current Dalai Lama is the 14th. He was born shortly after the death of the previous Dalai Lama, but he was born in a remote, isolated area of northern Tibet to a poor farming family. When he started talking, he spoke in the dialect of Lhasa, even though he had never heard it and nobody there spoke it (though some could understand it. He also talked of people he knew by name who were actual people in Lhasa and accurately described buildings and places. He also passed the test (as all the previous Dalai Lamas had) of correctly identifying all and only the personal items that belonged to his predecessor out of an array of similar objects. However, he has said that the memories of his past life started fading about age 4 and now he cannot remember any of it.

There are other non-religious documented examples (about 3,500 I think) of children who can speak languages they've never heard and describe places they've never been. The interesting thing is that this almost universally occurs between ages 4 to 6. That's why I asked what your first memory was. You said it was at age 4. Mine was also age 4. It seems to me this is when the current identity formation begins blocking memory of the past in the same way that learning Japanese blocked my past knowledge of German.

So, if a mind can pass from one body to another, it would have to do so in a non-material state, or at least in a state of material we don't understand and can't measure. Going back to my examples of Jeffery Dahmer (and serial killers in general) and Mozart (and child musical prodigies in general), and homosexuality, materialists will have to posit a complex array of physical attributes, conditions and processes to account for these, and as such these should be identifiable and observable. From a non-materialist view, Occam's Razor is on my side.

Bob is @iceman_bob on Twitter and a native of Montana, USA.
Andrew is Herr Absurd, a Brit and the owner of this blog.
This conversation will continue.

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