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The Experientiality of Matter

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If there’s one thing that Nietzsche advocated for, it was to eliminate dogmatism and absolutism from one’s thinking.  And although I generally agree with him here, I do think that there is one exception to this rule.  One thing that we can be absolutely certain of is our own conscious experience.  Nietzsche actually had something to say about this (in Beyond Good and Evil, which I explored in a previous post), where he responds to Descartes’ famous adage “cogito ergo sum” (the very adage associated with my blog!), and he basically says that Descartes’ conclusion (“I think therefore I am”) shows a lack of reflection concerning the meaning of “I think”.  He wonders how he (and by extension, Descartes) could possibly know for sure that he was doing the thinking rather than the thought doing the thinking, and he even considers the possibility that what is generally described as thinking may actually be something more like willing or feeling or something else entirely.

Despite Nietzsche’s criticism against Descartes in terms of what thought is exactly or who or what actually does the thinking, we still can’t deny that there is thought.  Perhaps if we replace “I think therefore I am” with something more like “I am conscious, therefore (my) conscious experience exists”, then we can retain some core of Descartes’ insight while throwing out the ambiguities or uncertainties associated with how exactly one interprets that conscious experience.

So I’m in agreement with Nietzsche in the sense that we can’t be certain of any particular interpretation of our conscious experience, including whether or not there is an ego or a self (which Nietzsche actually describes as a childish superstition similar to the idea of a soul), nor can we make any certain inferences about the world’s causal relations stemming from that conscious experience.  Regardless of these limitations, we can still be sure that conscious experience exists, even if it can’t be ascribed to an “I” or a “self” or any particular identity (let alone a persistent identity).

Once we’re cognizant of this certainty, and if we’re able to crawl out of the well of solipsism and eventually build up a theory about reality (for pragmatic reasons at the very least), then we must remain aware of the priority of consciousness in any resultant theory we construct about reality, with regard to its structure or any of its other properties.  Personally, I believe that some form of naturalistic physicalism (a realistic physicalism) is the best candidate for an ontological theory that is the most parsimonious and explanatory for all that we experience in our reality.  However, most people that make the move to adopt some brand of physicalism seem to throw the baby out with the bathwater (so to speak), whereby consciousness gets eliminated by assuming it’s an illusion or that it’s not physical (therefore having no room for it in a physicalist theory, aside from its neurophysiological attributes).

Although I used to feel differently about consciousness (and it’s relationship to physicalism), where I thought it was plausible for it to be some kind of an illusion, upon further reflection I’ve come to realize that this was a rather ridiculous position to hold.  Consciousness can’t be an illusion in the proper sense of the word, because the experience of consciousness is real.  Even if I’m hallucinating where my perceptions don’t directly correspond with the actual incoming sensory information transduced through my body’s sensory receptors, then we can only say that the perceptions are illusory insofar as they don’t directly map onto that incoming sensory information.  But I still can’t say that having these experiences is itself an illusion.  And this is because consciousness is self-evident and experiential in that it constitutes whatever is experienced no matter what that experience consists of.

As for my thoughts on physicalism, I came to realize that positing consciousness as an intrinsic property of at least some kinds of physical material (analogous to a property like mass) allows us to avoid having to call consciousness non-physical.  If it is simply an experiential property of matter, that doesn’t negate its being a physical property of that matter.  It may be that we can’t access this property in such a way as to evaluate it with external instrumentation, like we can for all the other properties of matter that we know of such as mass, charge, spin, or what-have-you, but that doesn’t mean an experiential property should be off limits for any physicalist theory.  It’s just that most physicalists assume that everything can or has to be reducible to the externally accessible properties that our instrumentation can measure.  And this suggests that they’ve simply assumed that the physical can only include externally accessible properties of matter, rather than both internally and externally accessible properties of matter.

Now it’s easy to see why science might push philosophy in this direction because its methodology is largely grounded on third-party verification and a form of objectivity involving the ability to accurately quantify everything about a phenomenon with little or no regard for introspection or subjectivity.  And I think that this has caused many a philosopher to paint themselves into a corner by assuming that any ontological theory underlying the totality of our reality must be constrained in the same way that the physical sciences are.  To see why this is an unwarranted assumption, let’s consider a “black box” that can only be evaluated by a certain method externally.  It would be fallacious to conclude that just because we are unable to access the inside of the box, that the box must therefore be empty inside or that there can’t be anything substantially different inside the box compared to what is outside the box.

We can analogize this limitation of studying consciousness with our ability to study black holes within the field of astrophysics, where we’ve come to realize that accessing any information about their interior (aside from how much mass there is) is impossible to do from the outside.  And if we managed to access this information (if there is any) from the inside by leaping past its outer event horizon, it would be impossible for us to escape and share any of that information.  The best we can do is to learn what we can from the outside behavior of the black hole in terms of its interaction with surrounding matter and light and infer something about the inside, like how much matter it contains (e.g. we can infer the mass of a black hole from its outer surface area).  And we can learn a little bit more by considering what is needed to create or destroy a black hole, thus creating or destroying any interior qualities that may or may not exist.

A black hole can only form from certain configurations of matter, particularly aggregates that are above a certain mass and density.  And it can only be destroyed by starving it to death, by depriving it of any new matter, where it will slowly die by evaporating entirely into Hawking radiation, thus destroying anything that was on the inside in the process.  So we can infer that any internal qualities it does have, however inaccessible they may be, can be brought into and out of existence with certain physical processes.

Similarly, we can infer some things about consciousness by observing one’s external behavior including inferring some conditions that can create, modify, or destroy that type of consciousness, but we are unable to know what it’s like to be on the inside of that system once it exists.  We’re only able to know about the inside of our own conscious system, where we are in some sense inside our own black hole with nobody else able to access this perspective.  And I think it is easy enough to imagine that certain configurations of matter simply have an intrinsic, externally inaccessible experiential property, just as certain configurations of matter lead to the creation of a black hole with its own externally inaccessible and qualitatively unknown internal properties.  Despite the fact that we can’t access the black hole’s interior with a strictly external method, to determine its internal properties, this doesn’t mean we should assume that whatever properties may exist inside it are therefore fundamentally non-physical.  Just as we wouldn’t consider alternate dimensions (such as those predicted in M-theory/String-Theory) that we can’t physically access to be non-physical.  Perhaps one or more of these inaccessible dimensions (if they exist) is what accounts for an intrinsic experiential property within matter (though this is entirely speculative and need not be true for the previous points to hold, but it’s an interesting thought nevertheless).

Here’s a relevant quote from the philosopher Galen Strawson, where he outlines what physicalism actually entails:

Real physicalists must accept that at least some ultimates are intrinsically experience-involving. They must at least embrace micropsychism. Given that everything concrete is physical, and that everything physical is constituted out of physical ultimates, and that experience is part of concrete reality, it seems the only reasonable position, more than just an ‘inference to the best explanation’… Micropsychism is not yet panpsychism, for as things stand realistic physicalists can conjecture that only some types of ultimates are intrinsically experiential. But they must allow that panpsychism may be true, and the big step has already been taken with micropsychism, the admission that at least some ultimates must be experiential. ‘And were the inmost essence of things laid open to us’ I think that the idea that some but not all physical ultimates are experiential would look like the idea that some but not all physical ultimates are spatio-temporal (on the assumption that spacetime is indeed a fundamental feature of reality). I would bet a lot against there being such radical heterogeneity at the very bottom of things. In fact (to disagree with my earlier self) it is hard to see why this view would not count as a form of dualism… So now I can say that physicalism, i.e. real physicalism, entails panexperientialism or panpsychism. All physical stuff is energy, in one form or another, and all energy, I trow, is an experience-involving phenomenon. This sounded crazy to me for a long time, but I am quite used to it, now that I know that there is no alternative short of ‘substance dualism’… Real physicalism, realistic physicalism, entails panpsychism, and whatever problems are raised by this fact are problems a real physicalist must face.

— Galen Strawson, Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?
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While I don’t believe that all matter has a mind per se, because a mind is generally conceived as being a complex information processing structure, I think it is likely that all matter has an experiential quality of some kind, even if most instantiations of it are entirely unrecognizable as what we’d generally consider to be “consciousness” or “mentality”.  I believe that the intuitive gap here is born from the fact that the only minds we are confident exist are those instantiated by a brain, which has the ability to make an incredibly large number of experiential discriminations between various causal relations, thus giving it a capacity that is incredibly complex and not observed anywhere else in nature.  On the other hand, a particle of matter on its own would be hypothesized to have the capacity to make only one or two of these kinds of discriminations, making it unintelligent and thus incapable of brain-like activity.  Once a person accepts that an experiential quality can come in varying degrees from say one experiential “bit” to billions or trillions of “bits” (or more), then we can plausibly see how matter could give rise to systems that have a vast range in their causal power, from rocks that don’t appear to do much at all, to living organisms that have the ability to store countless representations of causal relations (memory) allowing them to behave in increasingly complex ways.  And perhaps best of all, this approach solves the mind-body problem by eliminating the mystery of how fundamentally non-experiential stuff could possibly give rise to experientiality and consciousness.
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Substance Dualism, Interactionism, & Occam’s razor

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Recently I got into a discussion with Gordon Hawkes on A Philosopher’s Take about the arguments and objections for substance dualism, that is, the position that there are actually two ontological substances that exist in the world: physical substances and mental (or non-physical) substances.  Here’s the link to part 1, and part 2 of that author’s post series (I recommend taking a look at this group blog and see what he and others have written over there on various interesting topics).  Many dualists would identify or liken this supposed second substance as a soul or the like, but I’m not going to delve into that particular detail within this post.  I’d prefer to focus on the basics of the arguments presented rather than those kinds of details.  Before I dive into the topic, I want to mention that Hawkes was by no means making an argument for substance dualism, but rather he was merely pointing out some flaws in common arguments against substance dualism.  Now that that’s been said, I’m going to get to the heart of the topic, but I will also be providing evidence and arguments against substance dualism.  The primary point raised in the first part of that series was the fact that just because neuroscience is continuously finding correlations between particular physical brain states and particular mental states, this doesn’t mean that these empirical findings show that dualism is necessarily false — since some forms of dualism seem to be entirely compatible with these empirical findings (e.g. interactionist dualism).  So the question ultimately boils down to whether or not mental processes are identical with, or metaphysically supervenient upon, the physical processes of the brain (if so, then substance dualism is necessarily false).

Hawkes talks about how the argument from neuroscience (as it is sometimes referred to) is fallacious because it is based on the mistaken belief that correlation (between mental states and brain states) is equivalent with identity or supervenience of mental and physical states.  Since this isn’t the case, then one can’t rationally use the neurological correlation to disprove (all forms of) substance dualism.  While I agree with this, that is, that the argument from neuroscience can’t be used to disprove (all forms of) substance dualism, it is nevertheless strong evidence that a physical foundation exists for the mind and it also provides evidence against all forms of substance dualism that posit that the mind can exist independently of the physical brain.  At the very least, it shows that the prior probability of minds existing without brains is highly unlikely.  This would seem to suggest that any supposed mental substance is necessarily dependent on a physical substance (so disembodied minds would be out of the question for the minimal substance dualist position).  Even more damning for substance dualists though, is the fact that since the argument from neuroscience suggests that minds can’t exist without physical brains, this would mean that prior to brains evolving in any living organisms within our universe, at some point in the past there weren’t any minds at all.  This in turn would suggest that the second substance posited by dualists isn’t at all conserved like the physical substances we know about are conserved (as per the Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy).  Rather, this second substance would have presumably had to have come into existence ex nihilo once some subset of the universe’s physical substances took on a particular configuration (i.e. living organisms that eventually evolved a brain complex enough to afford mental experiences/consciousness/properties).  Once all the brains in the universe disappear in the future (after the heat death of the universe guarantees such a fate), then this second substance will once again disappear from our universe.

The only way around this (as far as I can tell) is to posit that the supposed mental substance had always existed and/or will always continue to exist, but in an entirely undetectable way somehow detached from any physical substance (which is a position that seems hardly defensible given the correlation argument from neuroscience).  Since our prior probabilities of any hypothesis are based on all our background knowledge, and since the only substance we can be sure of exists (a physical substance) has been shown to consistently abide by conservation laws (within the constraints of general relativity and quantum mechanics), it is more plausible that any other ontological substance would likewise be conserved rather than not conserved.  If we had evidence to the contrary, that would change the overall consequent probability, but without such evidence, we only have data points from one ontological substance, and it appears to follow conservation laws.  For this reason alone, it is less likely that a second substance exists at all, if it isn’t itself conserved as that of the physical.

Beyond that, the argument from neuroscience also provides at least some evidence against interactionism (the idea that the mind and brain can causally interact with each other in both causal directions), and interactionism is something that substance dualists would likely need in order to have any reasonable defense of their position at all.  To see why this is true, one need only recognize the fact that the correlates of consciousness found within neuroscience consist of instances of physical brain activity that are observed prior to the person’s conscious awareness of any experience, intentions, or willed actions produced by said brain activity.  For example, studies have shown that when a person makes a conscious decision to do something (say, to press one of two possible buttons placed in front of them), there are neurological patterns that can be detected prior to their awareness of having made a decision and so these patterns can be used to correctly predict which choice the person will make even before they do!  I would say that this is definitely evidence against interactionism, because we have yet to find any cases of mental experiences occurring prior to the brain activity that is correlated with it.  We’ve only found evidence of brain activity preceding mental experiences, never the other way around.  If the mind was made from a different substance, existing independently of the physical brain (even if correlated with it), and able to causally interact with the physical brain, then it seems reasonable to expect that we should be able to detect and confirm instances of mental processes/experiences occurring prior to correlated changes in physical brain states.  Since this hasn’t been found yet in the plethora of brain studies performed thus far, the prior probability of interactionism being true is exceedingly low.  Additionally, the conservation of mass and energy that we observe (as well as the laws of physics in general) in our universe also challenges the possibility of any means of causal energy transfer between a mind to a brain or vice versa.  For the only means of causal interaction we’ve observed thus far in our universe is by way of energy/momentum transfer from one physical particle/system to another.  If a mind is non-physical, then by what means can it interact at all with a brain or vice versa?

The second part of the post series from Hawkes talked about Occam’s razor and how it’s been applied in arguments against dualism.  Hawkes argues that even though one ontological substance is less complex and otherwise preferred over two substances (when all else is equal), Occam’s razor apparently isn’t applicable in this case because physicalism has been unable to adequately address what we call a mind, mental properties, etc.  My rebuttal to this point is that dualism doesn’t adequately address what we call a mind, mental properties, etc., either.  In fact it offers no additional explanatory power than physicalism does because nobody has proposed how it could do so.  That is, nobody has yet demonstrated (as far as I know) what any possible mechanisms would be for this new substance to instantiate a mind, how this non-physical substance could possibly interact with the physical brain, etc.  Rather it seems to have been posited out of an argument from ignorance and incredulity, which is a logical fallacy.  Since physicalism hasn’t yet provided a satisfactory explanation for what some call the mind and mental properties, it is therefore supposed by dualists that a second ontological substance must exist that does explain it or account for it adequately.

Unfortunately, because of the lack of any proposed mechanism for the second substance to adequately account for the phenomena, one could simply replace the term “second substance” with “magic” and be on the same epistemic footing.  It is therefore an argument from ignorance to presume that a second substance exists, for the sole reason that nobody has yet demonstrated how the first substance can fully explain what we call mind and mental phenomena.  Just as we’ve seen throughout history where an unknown phenomena is attributed to magic or the supernatural and later found to be accounted for by a physical explanation, this means that the prior probability that this will also be the case for the phenomena of the mind and mental properties is extraordinarily high.  As a result, I think that Occam’s razor is applicable in this case, because I believe it is always applicable to an argument from ignorance that’s compared to an (even incomplete) argument from evidence.  Since physicalism accounts for many aspects of mental phenomena (such as the neuroscience correlations, etc.), dualism needs to be supported by at least some proposed mechanism (that is falsifiable) in order to nullify the application of Occam’s razor.

Those are my thoughts on the topic for now.  I did think that Hawkes made some valid points in his post series — such as the fact that correlation doesn’t equal identity or supervenience and also the fact that Occam’s razor is only applicable under particular circumstances (such as when both hypotheses explain the phenomena equally, good or bad, with one containing a more superfluous ontology).  However, I think that overall the arguments and evidence against substance dualism are strong enough to eliminate any reasonable justification for supposing that dualism is true (not that Hawkes was defending dualism as he made clear at the beginning of his post) and I also believe that both physicalism and dualism explain the phenomena equally well such that Occam’s razor is applicable (since dualism doesn’t seem to add any explanatory power to that already provided by physicalism).  So even though correlation doesn’t equal identity or supervenience, the arguments and evidence from neuroscience and physics challenge the possibility of any interactionism between the physical and supposed non-physical substance, and it challenges the existence of the second substance in general (due to it’s apparent lack of conservation over time among other reasons).