Sunday, January 30, 2011

February 18: Attendee's Choice

There is no official topic tonight. We'll throw the session open to suggestion from the attendees and see where it goes. Come with your favorite question in mind, or go with the flow of conversation.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Mind/Body Dualism Revisited

In a post-meeting discussion last night I tried to explain why "normal" life experiences should be just as amazing as many of the exceptional experiences people seemed to want to use as examples of the mind/body problem. I must have failed to put the topic into proper context, because Pursig and myself both see the the experience of conscious mind inside a physical body as something of a miracle. So let me see if I can't make another run at setting up the problem.

The countertop in front of me is a physical object imbued with what I think most of us would agree to be no conscious event. A bucket of salty water is similarly without self-awareness. However, since humans are more like a bucket of salty water than we often realize, there is something going on inside us that makes consciousness happen. Something is happening that seems to go beyond what we understand physical materials have the capability to do, namely become self aware in the way we attribute human consciousness. How does that happen? Where does that happen? THAT was what I was trying to get us to contemplate.

The answer to this question generally falls into two camps. One we can call Physicalism, where the attribute of awareness is attributed to something like "complexity" of the constitution of the being. There are only physical phenomena happening and only one sort of thing exists, and that is the matter of the universe. From the primeval soup we have come, and of soup only are we. There is nothing more.

The second answer invokes a new substance, Mind, and gives it the attribute of consciousness. Mind is not physical. It does not have weight, shape, or location. It is somehow inside us, but not a part of us. At least not a part of us in the sense we can point to it and say "there it is!" We know that we have thoughts and we think we know our own thoughts intimately. Dualists would say that the thoughts are the stuff of Mind, since thoughts are similarly without mass or form. Dualists acknowledge the physical side, but invoke Mind to fill in the gap that seems to exist when talking about matter being animated and aware.

The problem has always been to reconcile the interaction between the physical and the mental realms. How can one affect the other? The common sense account is that our minds are the basis of our individuality and hold the keys to our personality and memories. The physical side is certainly involved, and is the path for sense experiences. Interaction with the environment comes to us through our senses, and rationality comes to us through our Mind. Dualists have to explain how these very different realms get together to form the whole that we are. Physicalists need to explain how physical phenomena only can lead to things like rational thought, awareness, and mental states. Traditionally they have had a hard time doing that.

In this environment are dreams insightful? Maybe. Dreams are usually thought of as being products of our sub-conscious mind, whatever that is. In an active and stimulated state we are awake and conscious. In an inactive and possibly sleeping state our conscious mind is inactive, but there is still some sort of trickle of activity which we call sub-conscious. Is this where dreams come from? If the answer is yes, then isn't this still just consciousness, in a reduced form? If the answer to that question is yes, then have we really gone anywhere with this line of reasoning?

Does the fact that drugs affect our mental states shed light on this problem? I think it does, and points towards Physicalism.

Are near death experiences relevant? I don't see how exactly since so many things may be happening that impact the physical system when the body is under extreme stress things are bound to be jumbled.

Is phylogeny helpful, since we are surrounded by creatures with different levels of complexity and different apparent amounts of awareness? I think phylogeny can offer hints that we can use to make a case but may not offer proof of anything. If you are Dualist looking at phylogenetic diversity, do you end up invoking some sort of Special Providence to explain why humans seemingly have more Mind than other animals? Would a Physicalist argue that human minds are the most developed, hence have the most awareness? The fossil record seems to show evidence of proto-conscious humanoid forms whose complexity may only have been some fractional part of current human brain development. This sort of phylogenetic thinking is really speculative, however, and does not seem to "prove" anything.

Does ontology provide any insights? I think it does. Human development from the egg to adult is marked with a clear physical development that includes things like development and maturation of the brain, and these developments can be tied to behavioral and cognitive traits that we attribute to consciousness. I think it makes a strong case for Physicalism. Could a Dualist claim that the Mind was present at one point of development and not another? How could that be defended?

We didn't do anything with the data identifying those in the group who tended toward Physicalism, and those towards Dualism. It might be interesting to contemplate this question:

What would it take in your own experience to sway you to the other side?

If you are a Physicalist, what life experience cold convince you that Dualism is the correct view?

If you are a Dualist, how could you be convinced that Physicalism is correct? Is there any way at all?