Thursday, 1 April 2021

Why are only the extreme positions permissible?

Why are only the extreme positions permissible? Hence, if I complain about the top 10% in the USA having 77% of total wealth, people always assume the only alternative is that everyone must be absolutely equal in wealth. Why? Clearly in between such extremes is possible e.g. the top 10% only have around 46% of the wealth in the UK (which is a vast difference to the USA). 

Or, if I complain about people owning vast tracks of land so that one cannot walk anywhere in non-urban areas without walking over private land, then I must also believe that people shouldn't have their own gardens. Why?

Or, if one decides modern life is unfulfilling, and hence decides to and live a simpler lifestyle somewhere remote, one must make no use of any technology whatsoever (not even a manufactured knife) otherwise one is being a hypocrite. How so?

Or, if one rejects the idea that we human beings are not just biological machines who will soon cease to exist forevermore, then I must believe in orthodox Christianity and believe that we spend an eternal afterlife in Heaven or Hell. Why? Why can't I believe that there is no punishment in an afterlife, that there is a beforelife as well as an afterlife, that reincarnation exists etc? Why are the choices restricted to the extremes of either materialism or fundamental Christianity?

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Does the key to consciousness lie within our brains?

I've just read the following article:

Does the key to consciousness lie within our brains?

Under the main title the article says:


Much recent research supports the view that science can describe consciousness.

Then the recent research is necessarily flawed. Science describes the material world, by which I mean the quantifiable/measurable aspects of reality.  Our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, although having quantifiable aspects, are not exhausted by their quantifiable aspects e.g. the patch of green I see may be of a certain size and shape and shade and reflect a certain wavelength of light, but the greenness itself resides outside the ambit of science.   This blog post by me is of relevance. 

Article says:


The study of consciousness remained solidly in the philosophical realm up to recent times as science had no way to measure it. That changed in the early 2000s with the arrival of brain scanning machines such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The Brain scanning machines scan the brain, not consciousness.

Article says:


It is a common belief that humans are exceptional and superior to other animals, because we are conscious and self-aware.

It is only a few scientists and other mavericks that would deny that all non-human animals lack consciousness.  Self-awareness?  I always have regarded this as meaning to be aware that one is a self i.e a distinct entity that endures through time.  In which case, I would imagine most non-human animals lack it, but certainly not all.

Article says: 


Scientists remain unsure why consciousness first evolved, or what survival advantage it gave us and other animals.

Scientists hold the view that consciousness per se has no causal efficacy.  If they are correct, then it could not evolve, nor convey any survival advantage. 

Article says:

Higher consciousness took millions of years to evolve, so scientists believe it gave our human ancestors a big survival advantage.

Then they are being inconsistent.  If consciousness gives humans a big survival advantage then necessarily it must be causally efficacious.

Article says: 


There are others, such as Daniel Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University who counter that since consciousness is the by-product of a working brain, that it is well within the grasp of science and scientists to study, describe and understand it. 

Let's leave aside how Dennett and others know that consciousness is a by-product of the brain.  Even assuming this, how does it follow that science is able to study it?  As I said at the beginning, it can't.  Even if consciousness is somehow produced by the brain it nevertheless resides outside the ambit of science.

Article says:

There has been much research over the past few decades that supports the view that science can describe consciousness. For example, neuroscientists know that looking at certain colours, such as red, influences brain activity, which can be read in a scanner. 

That's not science describing consciousness unless one identifies the experience of seeing red with characteristic brain activity.  So, here this is much more than the claim that brain activity somehow elicits consciousness, rather it would have to be the very same thing as consciousness.  But, it's not, and it's not for the simple reason that brain activity is exhausted by all possible measurements we can make of it.  In other words, its reality is cashed out in terms of all its physical properties.  Consciousness, on the other hand, such as the experience of redness, has no physical or measurable properties.

Monday, 22 March 2021

Guardian Article on Near Death Experiences (NDE's)

I read the following Guardian article:

What do near-death experiences mean, and why do they fascinate us?

Of the afterlife, [Kevin] Nelson [a neurologist] told me: “This claim is the most extraordinary in science, and there is no ordinary, let alone extraordinary, scientific evidence to support it.” (He added: “These are matters of faith.”)


A few comments:

What constitutes an extraordinary claim? A claim is deemed to be extraordinary if it is not consonant with our background beliefs about the nature of the world.  Those background beliefs are the assumption that materialism is correct, more precisely that the discoveries of science exhausts reality.  However, if we assume materialism, then there cannot be an afterlife, at least not in the form of a soul dwelling in some afterlife realm.  That doesn't just make an afterlife extraordinary, it makes it impossible.

So, since a proponent of an afterlife would scarcely embrace modern materialism, Kevin Nelson is transparently begging the question.  He would need to justify that modern materialism is very likely to be correct.  But I have argued that modern materialism is simply not compatible with the existence of consciousness, and here we're simply talking about our everyday embodied consciousness.  See my: Why the existence of consciousness rules modern materialism out.  In short, it seems to me that this assertion that an afterlife is an "extraordinary claim" cannot be substantiated.


Also, Nelson appears to be construing "scientific evidence" in the sense that we cannot derive a continued consciousness after death from everything we know about the material world and its structure.  That's true, but it conveniently leaves out the fact that we cannot derive normal everyday embodied consciousness from the  material world and its structure either!  Consciousness needs to be causally efficacious before we have evidence of it, and the causal efficacy of consciousness is denied by most scholars (we're talking here about consciousness per se rather than its neural correlates). 

Again, this can be circumvented by saying consciousness is identical (not merely caused, elicited etc) to neural activity. So yes, we can then have embodied consciousness, but not any unembodied consciousness.  But that again is to transparently assume modern materialism (NB I am specifically talking about materialism here, not just any position that holds the brain produces consciousness).  


And what is meant by saying an afterlife is a "faith"? Why is the hypothesis that our consciousness continues after the death of our bodies labelled a faith, but not the extinction (annihilation) hypothesis? By labelling the survival hypothesis a "faith" he appears to be implying that the "no afterlife" thesis should be the default, more reasonable, one. But why is it? I deny that it is. See my Brains affecting Minds do not rule out an Afterlife.

The article also says:

Daniel Kondziella, a neurologist affiliated with the department of neurology at Copenhagen University Hospital, told me that if “people are able to describe and report their experiences, even many years later”, then surely “they have been processed by the brain and stored in its memory centres.”

To say that memories are stored appears to me to deny that memories are a property of a [non-material] self.  I discuss such a self here.   So arguments are required as to why my conception of the self is unsatisfactory.  Apart from that, it seems that Kondziella is also begging the question since if the brain stores memories, then surely the brain produces the rest of our consciousness?  Besides, which, it seems this whole notion that memories can be stored is fatally problematic as I explain here.  Memories just exist and the fact that brains can impede access to them has no more significance then the fact eyeglasses can impede vision if the lenses are cracked. 

 

Friday, 5 March 2021

Lack of Meaning to Life in our Modern Western Culture

I read the following article that I entirely agree with and I highly recommend people read it.

Meaningfulness, Its Moral Implications and the Path Forward

Article says:

[T]he average person will spend about 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime. Most people report saying they are not satisfied with their current job and are mostly disengaged. In sum, the average person spends one-third of their lives unengaged and unfulfilled.

and

The majority of occupations under poorly-regulated capitalist societies manifest themselves to turn workers into cogs in machines; most work is either unengaging or tedious, which sucks the spirit out of the worker and leaves them drained for when they actually have time to do what they might find meaningful. 

I agree, and I have said much the same myself.  See the 5th paragraph in my Is there a better alternative to capitalism?  

Work doesn't have to be like this.  People need to be intimately and emotionally involved in the product they're creating, or the service they're providing.  I do not subscribe to the widespread belief that how much we get paid for some work is responsible for how much effort we put into it and, hence, our productivity.  Indeed, I wonder what evidence or justification there is for believing this?  Instead, I strongly suspect that what motivates people to work hard is the sense of achievement in producing something that other people really appreciate, together with the knowledge that not many others have the requisite skills to do what you've done. It's working towards some goal that has real value, and for others to exclaim "wow" when they see the result. It's pride in producing something, or providing some service. This, in turn, also makes the work enjoyable. So productivity and enjoyment go hand in hand. Unfortunately, as the author of the article points out, work in our modern industrialised capitalist society generally isn't like that. And, on that note, this article also may be of interest.  

Oh well, at least we have our loving spouses to greet us when the workday finishes? Well... as the article goes on to say:

Half of marriages end in divorce and nearly half of those that don't end in divorce are riddled with unhappiness—the latter frankly being a conservative estimate.

What we're all after is love, a total and complete mutual appreciation of another person's essence, a total empathetic identification with their being that will turn our souls inside out.  But, it seems, in the real world, that this is very rare.  Whether or not this is just simply the way we are, and love -- at least as I have defined it -- is extraordinarily difficult to attain, surely we can improve upon this present dire state of affairs? If love is not achievable, surely at least a life-long friendship with one's spouse is? 

Again, I think at least part of the problem here is the nature of capitalism where success and prestige are measured by one's wealth, whilst affiliation and empathy for others all too often takes a backseat.  We are all in competition with each other.  We are compared, all too harshly by our partners and others, against the "success" of our peers.  This can give rise to mutual resentment.

But surely our well-being and happiness are significantly enhanced by our other relationships? What about our close friends, work colleagues and so on?  The article says:

54 percent of adults also report that they regularly feel as if no one knows them well, nearly half report frequently feeling lonely or left out. Forty-three percent report that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others, and 59 percent feel that those around them do not share their interests and ideas.

Speaking on a personal level, I don't think anyone knows me! Least of all shares my interests and ideas, although, to be honest, I'm surprised that this figure is as high as 59%.

It seems to me that a lot of us live bleak, unfulfilling, lives, both at work and at home. And to what end? A decent wage allows us to buy the latest technological gadgets, but do they really bestow long term happiness? Not so far as I can see. I continually encounter people who declare they are depressed.

I have read that depression is virtually absent in hunter-gatherer societies.  Crucially, in those societies, life was full of danger.  Close brushes with death with the consequent comradeship and camaraderie when others save your life, and you theirs. The collective outpouring of emotions, the bitter and sweet taste of life in the raw. All this with the implicit feeling that death is just another journey and all will come right in the end.

Of course, I'm not suggesting a life full of danger is ideal.  But I do suggest that life ideally should be an adventure. A journey with ongoing meaningful experiences. And grounded with the feeling of purpose.  And that death is just another journey, rather than oblivion. That the Universe is full of love and meaning, and we are part of it.

I think that the way we live in our modern western industrialised world, together with our Weltanschauung, is simply not desirable. Happiness is not measured by our wealth, nor our technology. And our technology is destroying the planet to boot.  So, a radical change is required. A new way to live. A new relationship with the planet. A new outlook regarding what we are and our place in the world. But I can't see anything changing in a very long time. 

Friday, 12 February 2021

The Filter Hypothesis of the Mind-Brain Relationship



In the Myth of an Afterlife there's a chapter called The Dualist’s Dilemma.  The authors of this particular chapter (different chapters are penned by different authors) are Keith Augustine and Yonatan I. Fishman.  At one point they criticise the filter hypothesis of the consciousness-brain relationship.  The filter hypothesis rejects the idea that the brain produces the self and consciousness and, at least in its most simplistic interpretation, holds that the brain serves to constrain, limit and focus our consciousness.  They say:


If the mind is “not generated by the brain but instead focused, limited, and constrained by it” (Kelly et al., 2007, p. xxx), the filter theory entails that a brainless mind will be expanded, less limited, and unrestricted by brain function. 

So, in an unembodied state as in an afterlife realm, we ought to be more conscious.  This seems to be supported by accounts from those who have undergone NDE's who often report that during their NDE they felt more conscious than they have ever felt in their lives.

They continue:


[No] brainless minds are available to clinicians for study, this is not a falsifiable prediction in itself. But it does have falsifiable consequences, most obviously that the greater the disruption in brain function, the “freer” the mind will be from its neural confines, and hence the clearer one’s cognitive function will be. For example, we would expect the progressive destruction of more and more of the brain’s “filter” by Alzheimer’s disease to progressively “free” more and more of consciousness, and thus increase Alzheimer’s patients’ mental proficiency as the disease progresses. Just as removing sections of a dam would increase the flow of water going through it, the degenerating “filter” would become increasingly ineffective in limiting consciousness as more and more neural pathways were destroyed.

But nothing could be further from the truth. As the dependence thesis straightforwardly predicts, the more that brain functioning is compromised, the more that the mind itself is compromised.

Well, in the context of Alzheimer's there is the phenomenon of terminal or paradoxical lucidity, but anyway... 

Often the metaphor of a TV set is employed to illustrate this filter hypothesis. Just as a TV set doesn't produce the programmes that are shown, but merely alters the TV signal in certain characteristic ways, so too brains don't produce consciousness but rather alters consciousness in a certain characteristic way.  Now, clearly, a damaged TV doesn't result in enhanced picture quality, so why would a damaged brain result in one becoming more conscious?

Their mistake is to ignore the fact that while the self is attached to the brain, then it will be subject to the condition of the brain.  Compare to my vision when I wear eyeglasses with the lenses progressively fogging up.  My vision won't be enhanced, rather it will be compromised.  But not so when I take the eyeglasses off.

They go on to say:


[O]n the filter theory we would expect more robust brains to be better filters of an otherwise unrestricted mind, and thus for the minds of those who possess the most complex brains to be the most mentally handicapped. But then wouldn’t the organisms with the simplest brains be the most mentally proficient, rather than those with the most complex ones? And wouldn’t children with the least developed brains be the most mentally proficient, while those transitioning into adulthood became increasingly impaired by the greater filtering imposed by their progressively developing brains?

Not at all.  Again, if we refer to the TV set metaphor, we would scarcely expect an old-fashioned B&W TV set to produce the best picture quality, and a more technologically sophisticated  smart UHD TV set, to produce the worst.

Incidentally, they're taking the notion of a brain being a "filter" too literally.  The brain doesn't merely filter, it will have a somewhat more involved role than that.

PS I have a ~13,000 word review of The Myth of an Afterlife.  Go here.  




Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Over 100,000 dead in the UK from Covid-19

Yes, yet another post about the virus.  I know, I know, all very boring compared to my philosophical output, but I am perplexed, frustrated, angry and bemused by the (UK) Government and all the colossally bad decisions it's made regarding the virus. The official tally dead in the UK from the virus is now above 100,000.  And, I heard that the death rate from the virus is the worst in the world. Compare over 100,000 deaths with New Zealand's, which has seen only 25 deaths.

The insane decisions made by the UK Government regarding this virus are simply never-ending. 

1. Right from the off, ideally as early as January 2020, everyone arriving in the UK, including British people returning to the UK, should have been quarantined for at least 10 days.  But there were no border controls for months!  We just allowed anyone, even from China, to come in.  People weren't even tested, least of all quarantined.

2. As soon as the virus arrived in the UK and started to spread, a severe lockdown should have been imposed.  Not doing so allowed the virus to infiltrate everywhere. So, by the time the first lockdown was imposed in late March, it was already too late.

3.  Now the virus was established in the UK, the rate of infection R had to be driven right down.  In as much as the lockdown was relaxed, it couldn't be relaxed so much as to allow the R rate to go above 1.  That would simply ensure the virus would, once again, proliferate.  

So what did the Government do?  They relaxed the lockdown.  They allowed international and domestic travel, opened the schools, told students to attend University, implemented the Eat Out to Help Out policy, reopened pubs, cinemas etc, dropped the 2 metre social distancing rule, and employees were permitted to return to the office.  This was insane.  Such policies, at least as a collective whole, simply ensured that R would rise well above 1 leading inevitably to a further lockdown down the line.

4.  And now the latest news is that only those entering the UK from high risk countries, not all countries, will be quarantined.  See here.  I'm perplexed, what's to stop people from the high-risk countries simply travelling to the UK via another country first?

Presumably the motivation for all these staggering bad decisions was to save the economy.  But I'm not sure that simply continually imposing and relaxing these type of "lockdowns" is helpful in this regard.  Just one lockdown, but a radical one, was required in order to drive the R figure right down and control the virus.  Like what New Zealand and other countries did. 

My posts on the virus in chronological order spread across my 2 blogs:

The Coronavirus
Herd Immunity and the Coronavirus
Peoples' indifference to the coronavirus
Lockdowns to contain the Virus

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

The Mantra "We don't have Free Will"

I'm sick of people claiming that free will is an illusion, that it is rational and scientific to hold this.  Yet, they seem extremely reluctant to specify what this actually means.  That my consciousness doesn't actually do anything? So, I'm typing out these words, but it's not my consciousness doing it?

Frequently they might say they believe in "determinism" but without specifying exactly what is meant by this term.   I guess they mean that the four forces in nature, (gravitation, electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear forces) represent true innate causes in the world and all change in the physical world is due exclusively to the interaction of these four forces?  Well, at least that's clear. So they really do mean my consciousness does absolutely nothing, not even in any train of thought I might entertain! Which it is very easy to refute as I do in the first three paragraphs of an essay I wrote.

But then they shift and obfuscate and claim we don't have free will as the environment influences our behaviour! Well, yes . . when I'm thirsty I'm more likely to drink water (or ribena at least). But no one in the history of the Universe has denied our bodily needs influence our behaviour! And even here, I can ignore my urge to drink.  

Or they say that we don't have free will as our behaviour is in principle predictable. Well gosh, people will stoop down and pick up a £50 note if they see one lying on the pavement outside. So they don't have free will as their behaviour was predictable!  But why does the predictability of peoples' behaviour entail we lack free will?  They never say! I address this issue in the same essay I linked to above under the heading Free Will and Determinism.

So this initial claim we don't have free will is watered down and down until it means nothing so far as I can tell. One would have to behave randomly to satisfy their apparent definition of "free will". But then, predictably enough, they say acting randomly isn't free will either.  Little wonder they reject it.

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Commenting on a negative review of the Netflix series "Surviving Death"

As a preliminary, I should point out that I haven't watched this series of programmes, nor have I read the book that the series is based on. Since, though, there's plenty of reviews of this series of programmes, I am now sufficiently intrigued that I plan to watch both the series and read the book, and possibly review both. So, for the first time ever, I'll be subscribing to Netflix!

Anyway, here's a negative review of the series from The Daily Beast that I'll make a few comments on:

‘Surviving Death’: Netflix’s New Series on the Afterlife Is Crackpot Nonsense

First thing to say is that there aren't any detailed arguments here.  It adopts a flippant dismissive tone rather than a measured approach.  But, for what it's worth, let's look at what it has to say:

The article says:

[E]lderly hospice patients often state that they see, and speak to, their deceased relatives. Alas, Surviving Death ignores any non-supernatural explanation for these phenomena—say, that cultural programming inspires like-minded deathbed visions, or that aged men and women whose minds are deteriorating, and who’ve lost everyone they cherish, might naturally retreat into comforting family-reunion fantasies.

So, cultural programming or fantasy might make you see someone and talk to them.  My immediate reaction here is to ask why not prefer the more obvious and straightforward explanation that they are in actual communication with them?  From what I've read they certainly seem to be.  Of course, they might have retorted that the notion they are really in communication with dead people is an extraordinary claim.  But, in the review, they don't say that and no argument is presented to support that contention.   And besides, as I have extensively argued in my blog, for example here, I do not think the notion that it is an extraordinary claim can be justified.

The article also says:

Everyone spotlighted by Surviving Death agrees that grief is at the root of people’s desire to believe in the afterlife.

For many people that might well be so.  And, of course, having a desire that something is true doesn't make it any more likely to be true.  But, also, it doesn't make it any more likely to be false either.  In short, it doesn't matter that many people have a desire to believe in an afterlife. What are relevant are the reasons and evidence that can bear on this issue. 

The article also says:

Where are the bitter, angry ghosts who want to vent to those they left behind?

Communication, whether via mediumship or perceiving an apparition, will presumably be of a telepathic nature.  Are anger and bitterness conveyed in general telepathic communications? Of course, it might be that the anger has dissipated in the afterlife realm -- this is suggested by NDEs who often report feeling unconditional love from the beings they perceive.  

The article also says:
Surviving Death boasts an extremely limited view of the afterlife—one in which all ghosts communicate in the same indirect-clue fashion, and have the same unrevealing things to say.
I do agree that the "unrevealing things to say" accusation makes mediumship somewhat less convincing than it otherwise might have been.  Having said that, we need to remember that the alleged communication isn't conveyed by words, but rather telepathy.  Can telepathy convey the same information as a spoken language? Telepathy might be elicited via an emotional resonance between two or more beings, which primarily convey feelings rather than "cold" information.  So, a detailed description of the afterlife via telepathy might be difficult.

The article also says:

 And there’s also one woman’s extended tall tale about foreseeing her death at the moment of her child’s birth|.

I'm not sure that premonitions are completely impossible.  I have more to say on this issue in another blog post here.   But, even granting it's a "tall tale", it is not generally disputed there's a great deal of nonsense out there.  But, how does this negate the more convincing evidence, or the fundamental problem that if there is no afterlife how the brain somehow produces consciousness?

The article also says:

[I]n late passages about children who claim to be reincarnated souls, the show doesn’t cast a single sideways glance at the adults and kids making these assertions.

Not sure what this means? With Ian Stevenson and his successors, it's not as if children are simply believed, their claims are thoroughly investigated. If investigations reveal their memories match up to past events, and which couldn't have been obtained by any normal obvious manner, then we need to entertain the various hypotheses. Reincarnation is the most straightforward obvious one and that fits all the facts.  Of course, we should be extremely sceptical about anyone claiming to have been a famous person.

Well, that's it.  I need to watch these programmes!

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Lockdowns to contain the Virus

I keep reading people say that "lockdowns" to contain covid-19 don't work.  I'm not sure what they mean.  At least in England, lockdowns are a reactive policy.  The number of infected and R number goes up and up, and so, in a panic, the Government imposes a lockdown to stop the increase, which it does, but then when the lockdown ends the numbers obviously increase again.  So, effectively, lockdowns are a policy of desperation.  They do work as in keeping the numbers in check, but of course, they don't get rid of the virus!  

The Government needed and needs to apply pro-active policies, and should have done so from the off back last January.  I suggested at that time the banning of all international flights (see a blog post of mine here). Certainly, something should have been done.  Perhaps the isolation for 2 weeks of all arrivals to the UK and which was strictly enforced, including those coming back from holiday.  If not implemented in January, then February or, at the very latest, early March.  Moreover, the Government have continued to make the wrong decisions throughout.  For example, back in September, why on earth were schools allowed to be re-opened and students told to go back to University?  Of course, the numbers of infected were low then -- 1 in every 900 people in the UK compared to 1 in 50 now -- but that was the very time to drive the numbers and the R rate even lower.  Not allow the R number and the number of infected people to rise again!  It was a deeply foolish policy.

New Zealand  implemented the correct policies from the off and life is pretty much normal there now and has been for months with a mere 25 people having died from the virus (see this article).  Contrast that to the U.K where around 75,000 are dead and counting, approximately 1 person in every 50 people is infected, and we're currently in our 3rd lockdown with no end in sight.

So, I really just don't get it.  The Government has scientific advisors, so they will have been aware of the dangers of the virus.  Of course, there would have been a lot of opposition to implementing the correct policies.  But objections such as the negative economic impact were always ludicrous given that those who are asymptomatic can spread the virus.  Hence a global pandemic was always on the cards.  As I said on Facebook back on the 31st January 2020: "The one worrying thing [about this virus] is the claim that people can pass it on when displaying no symptoms themselves".

Then there is the somewhat silly objection of border controls, forced quarantine etc impacting on our freedoms.  The problem here is that freedom to do what we want shouldn't be universal.  In particular, freedoms need to be curtailed where they impact on other peoples' freedoms (have any of these people read John Stuart Mill's On Liberty?  I surmise not!).  It was surely better for New Zealand to encroach upon "freedoms" and implement the policies they did, so that New Zealanders now enjoy normal lives free of the fear of getting the virus, then simply to have done nothing and allow the virus to spread throughout the population with all the negative consequences this entails.

So, why on earth was absolutely nothing done in the UK?  Yes yes yes, I'm aware that Governments have to pander to the electorate and avoid, as much as possible, unpopular policies. Slip and slither, slide around every issue to make sure the voters keep on voting them back into office. But this often results in very bad decisions that are highly detrimental to society as a whole.  In the case of the virus, the death of many thousands of people and hundreds of billions of pounds!

The whole problem with democracy and why it's such a bad system of Government is that leaders are incentivised to make bad decisions because the general populace have only a very superficial understanding of political issues and vote due to crude sentiments or a misplaced notion of the party that will most benefit them.

We need leaders who paradoxically do not want to be leaders, who do not crave the power.  Who are rational, think in the long term, who are above all pro-active.  Plato had the best idea.

Monday, 4 January 2021

More on Autonomous Cars

I've just read the following article:

'Peak hype': why the driverless car revolution has stalled 

It says:

[E]xperts admit the autonomous vehicle challenge is bigger than anticipated.

And goes on to say:

By 2021, according to various Silicon Valley luminaries, bandwagoning politicians and leading cab firms in recent years, self-driving cars would have long been crossing the US, started filing along Britain’s motorways and be all set to provide robotaxis in London.


And:

Prof Nick Reed, a transport consultant who ran UK self-driving trials, says: “The perspectives have changed since 2015, when it was probably peak hype. Reality is setting in about the challenges and complexity.”

Back in June 2014 I predicted that by 2060 fully self-driving cars will have taken over the world.  I mentioned back then the formidable problems of having a mixture of both self-driving and human driven cars on the same roads.  I subsequently concluded that not only are the problems formidable, they are insurmountable.

I wonder why most "experts" failed to realise what I realised?     

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Education and Scientism

It is generally thought that education is an unadulterated good thing.  However, I have reservations.  It seems to me that one of the detractions of education, and specifically a scientific education, is that it indoctrinates people into passively accepting certain ideas about the world. Ideas that, strictly speaking, are philosophical rather than something science entails.  For example, that we are sophisticated biological robots with no free will. That colours, sounds and smells don't literally exist out there.  That psi, an afterlife, rain-dancing, magic spells, dowsing are all hooey etc (it's possible the last 3 are hooey, I have no idea).

Even if we are to suppose that they are correct on all these issues, I find it interesting that people can never argue to justify their certainty on any of them.  When I ask people the origin of their convictions they often content themselves with asserting that I only think such things are possible because I want them to be true  Of course, here they are assuming that their own beliefs are highly likely to be correct and the reason I do not consent to their beliefs is because my yearning for such things overrides my reason.  They do not take a blind bit of notice of my actual arguments.

I also often hear the mantra, "where's the evidence". By "evidence" it transpires they mean something repeatable in a lab and that anyone, even skeptics, can unerringly replicate. There appears to be no room in their worldview for spontaneous or capricious phenomena, nor where a certain psychological state is a crucial ingredient for the manifestation of the phenomenon of interest. 

The fundamental point is this, if people assert something doesn't exist, they need to provide reasons for their belief.  Not simply be content to say "prove me wrong".  But I do not think it is an exaggeration to say I never actually hear any valid arguments.  At best I am told that such phenomena, if they exist, are simply impossible, that it would break the laws of physics and even render the whole scientific enterprise as fundamentally wrong.  But, we need to understand that the so-called "laws" of physics are simply a mathematical description of the patterns we find in the world. What these people are doing is reifying such a description and demanding that reality dances to its tune. In other words, they're putting the cart before the horse. However, reality has no obligation to conform to what we regard as "physical laws". Physical laws are general -- we lack compelling reasons to believe our current "laws" describe reality in its totality. In particular, they leave out consciousness in their description of reality. (I cover this issue in greater depth herehere, here and here.)

I think it's the power of our culture imposing its belief system on educated people. People just soak up the beliefs of their culture and their peers.  We live in a scientism infatuated culture that fosters the view that physics provides a literal depiction of the ultimate nature of reality.  Hence, all the qualitative features of reality -- that is, colours, smells, sounds and of course conscious experience itself -- are relegated to either being illusory, or are deemed to be translatable, without remainder, into the interactions of the ultimate entities that physics describes.

This is unfortunate.  Ideally education should make people think. To question prevailing beliefs and "wisdom". Indeed, to be a sceptic in the original meaning of that word. There's precious few people who are rational intelligent independent thinkers. And I can't see that ever changing.

Monday, 2 November 2020

Does the brain store memories?

The idea that brains store memories has a difficulty. Memories would presumably have to be stored via information. All information can, in principle, be represented by a string of numbers, say 100011011000.  But how would we know what memory that such a string of numbers represents? Books can contain lots of info, but we only understand them as we know the meaning of English words. We also have to remember the meaning of English words. Likewise we have to remember what memory 100011011000 stands for. As it stands it's not a memory any more than a knot in a hanky is.

So we need further info.  Something like 111001? But then we get the exact same objection. How do we know what 111001 stands for? Yet more info? Then we get an infinite regress.

My view is that memories cannot and are not stored.  We have to be in touch with them directly, so to speak.  Compare to vision.  We may not be able to see something clearly, even misinterpret what we are seeing.  But that doesn't rule out we are not directly seeing that something i.e we are not just acquainted with a representation of the seen object in our minds.

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

What do people mean when they say there's no evidence?

It's interesting that people on the web constantly say "there's no evidence for an afterlife", or "there's no evidence for psi". For this seems to be straightforwardly false. Take reincarnation. There's research into alleged past lives of young children that appears to show that they are getting accurate information about a person that had previously lived. Or take psi. Parapsychologists have provided plenty of evidence for it. 

Obviously, most of these people are presumably just repeating each other. But what justification could be given for the origin of this claim that there's no evidence for such things?

Consider the case where someone declares that we have evidence that beds are dangerous as people disproportionately die in them compared to elsewhere. Would this be evidence that beds are dangerous, even if only very weak evidence?

It depends on what people mean by "evidence". I would say yes, but I think most science educated people would say no. One reason why they would say no is because we already have a good explanation for why people die in beds -- namely because they go to bed when they are ill. But, another more compelling reason, is that it seems there's no conceivable mechanism whereby beds in and of themselves could somehow play a causal role in precipitating death.

Let's, for the sake of argument, accept for the moment these peoples' conception of "evidence" as requiring a possible mechanism.  
Now, consider reincarnation. Even though young children appear to recollect previous lives, people assert there's no conceivable causal mechanism whereby consciousness can depart from a person who has died, to then appear in a fetus or new born baby. Hence, until someone proposes a possible mechanism, there can be no scientific evidence for reincarnation. Same applies more generally to an afterlife, or to psi.

There's a deep problem here though. There appears to be an implicit assumption that our everyday embodied consciousness being produced by brains is entirely unproblematic and hence that there will be a mechanism whereby this is achieved even though we have yet to discover it. Or, even if it's not entirely unproblematic, we can be confident that brains do somehow produce consciousness because of all the ways that brains affect our mind-states -- especially when we consider such debilitating conditions as dementia.

I would maintain, though, that the mind-brain correlations that supposedly prove that brains produce minds, appears to be no more persuasive than eyeglasses- acuity of vision correlations prove that eyeglasses produce vision. In the case of the eyeglasses, there clearly is no conceivable mechanism. And we know that vision already exists, it is merely changed by the eyeglasses. However, it seems to me, brains are in the same boat. There is nothing about the ultimate particles that brains are made of that could possibly produce our phenomenological experiences. So, similar to eyeglasses-vision, perhaps consciousness already exists with brains merely changing it.

But, regardless of whether I am right or wrong about the brain somehow producing consciousness, it seems to me we don’t have any conceivable mechanism for how the brain does this. Hence, if despite the correlations we have no evidence that beds precipitate death, then likewise, despite the mind-brain correlations, and since we lack a conceivable mechanism, we also have no evidence that brains produce consciousness. So even if – contrary to my position – the thesis that brains produce consciousness is at least conceivable (unlike eyeglasses producing vision), we have no evidence that brains actually do so (least of all do we have proof).

Indeed, we have a more plausible scenario; namely consciousness exists all along with brains merely changing it i.e. consciousness is fundamental. And if that should be the case, then consciousness can exist independently of brains just as vision exists independently of eyeglasses.  If this is so then the demand for a mechanism is misplaced.  Indeed, demanding a possible mechanism appears to presuppose that consciousness is material and hence is question-begging.

Now let’s consider psi. Even if the notion of the brain producing consciousness is unproblematic, the fact still remains we have no causal mechanism for how it is produced. But psi, if it exists, will be an ability or property of consciousness. If we lack a causal mechanism for the very existence of consciousness, how on earth can we expect anyone to produce a causal mechanism for psi? Further, if I am correct and consciousness is not produced by the brain, how can we a priori declare what properties consciousness must have?

When people say psi is impossible due to no possible causal mechanism, they have in mind that physics pretty much describes the entirety of reality and it doesn’t allow for psi. But physics leaves out consciousness in its description of reality; indeed it suggests consciousness shouldn’t exist. If it suggests this, it is scarcely likely to suggest a property of consciousness like psi should exist, or even free will or a causal role for consciousness.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

DNA? Nurture? What makes us what we are?

Yesterday I read the following short article by Robert Plomin, an American psychologist and geneticist best known for his work in twin studies and behaviour genetics:

Parenting myths and the DNA revolution

I recommend people read this before proceeding further, it is only very short.

My own position is that the notion that we are born blank slates and it is purely the environment that makes everything we are, is preposterous.  I briefly touch on this issue here.  I should stress, though, that our environment does, of course, shape and mould our behaviour.  This is often a persona that one learns to put on in order to be accepted by others.  But also, as we grow older, most of us (but not everyone) can acquire genuine empathy and compassion as a result of their interactions with others.  However, the notion that everything we are -- all our interests, our treatment of others and so on -- is wholly due to our environment, I find extraordinarily implausible.   


The article states that:

 "children growing up in the same family with the same parents are no more similar than if the children were raised in different families".
So, in other words, regardless of whether 2 children are brought up in the same family or whether each of them are brought up in different families, the author is claiming that this will not affect their personalities.  This is compatible with my own position since, though I think we can change by acquiring empathy and so on, this is not something that can easily be taught.  Moreover, this is largely only applicable once one reaches adulthood in any case.

The author states that his fifty years of research shows that:
inherited DNA differences account for about 50% of the differences between children for all psychological traits.  
So what about the other 50% if it is not due to the environment?  This is the interesting part.  The author says:
Following years of research trying to identify the environmental factors that make children in the same family different from one another, I conclude that they are mostly idiosyncratic, random factors over which parents have little control—in a word, chance. 


Of course, saying that the other 50% of all psychological traits is due to "idiosyncratic, random factors" is to say precisely nothing.  He is effectively saying, I have no idea what accounts for the other 50%, it beats me.  In other words he's floundering, flummoxed, unable to come up with any conceivable mechanism for the other 50%.

What seems to me to be happening here is that the author presupposes that we are purely material beings and hence it can only be the environment or our genetic makeup or some combination thereof, that can possibly explain the entirety of our psychological traits.  It seems that virtually the entire academic community are in this straitjacket, confining their thoughts to only those possibilities consonant with a naturalistic metaphysic. Virtually all of them believe that our nature is fixed by something external to the self -- whether it be the environment, genetics, or some combination of both. They are implicitly assuming that everything we are is simply a result of impersonal material processes.

This contradicts our commonsensical conception of the self that I have articulated in many of my blog entries, two very recent ones being here and here.  I regard it as a mistake to suppose that anything material -- whether genes or environment -- has to make us what we are. What we are, our essence, is just a fundamental fact not capable of further analysis. At best we might say we self-actualise our own essence. We make ourselves what we are. That is, we self-cause our own nature.

For me, the fact that his research has been unable to account for 50% of all psychological traits is entirely unsurprising, and indeed, to be expected.  It's like being surprised that people who have imbibed the same amount of alcohol don't all act the same.  Yes, they might all become more gregarious, more impulsive, and so on.  But that's just an influence on their distinct essences.  I suspect the genetic component of us plays a similar role. 

 



Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Is your "self" just an illusion?

Just read this: Is Your 'Self' Just an Illusion?   I reject this idea that the self is an illusion.  I believe we are the very same selves throughout our lives, and perhaps before and after our lives too.  This can be accommodated if we regard ourselves as mental substances (read this recent blog post by me).

However, according to the article and contrary to my position, both John Searle, a philosopher of mind at the University of California, Berkeley, and Colin McGinn, a British philosopher of mind, although apparently sympathetic to the feeling we are persisting selves, both have difficulty in imagining how we could be.

Quoting from the article, John Searle said:
The problem with personal identity is, we feel there is a fact that 'I'm me'. But that's hard to pin down philosophically, because all of my experiences change, all of the parts of my body change, all of the molecules in my body change.

He further stated:

You have to postulate a self to make sense of rational behavior. We want to find a 'soul' that is at the bottom of all this … but, of course, there isn't any. 

Colin McGinn said:

The self is something real, but the self has got to be grounded in the brain — the self's unity over time must be a function of what's in the brain. We don't know how that works, but it must be so.

He also adds:

 All we've got is the idea that you, at a later time, are causally connected to you at an earlier time. That isn't the same thing as you persisting through time.

So they have a great deal of difficulty reconciling this idea that we are persisting selves with the idea that the brain produces consciousness.  I sympathise with this.  Our brains are in a constant state of change.  Thus, how could they produce an unchanging self?

Psychologist and skeptic Susan Blackmore outrightly rejects this concept of persisting selves.  She says:

This so-called 'me' is really just another reconstruction. There was an earlier one 30 minutes ago, and there will be others in the future. But they're really not the same person

She further goes on to say "so there's no self to die", because there is no self prior to death and "there's certainly no self to continue after death".

And she also said:

Death has no sting, because there never was a 'you' to die. Every moment is just a new story.

We regard death as the end of us and something to be feared.  But this presupposes we exist before death -- that we are conscious entities that persist from second to second, day to day, even from one year to the next. But, if there's no persisting self, then all this is an illusion.  We effectively are constantly dying every second, only to spring into being anew the next second.  But the new "you" that springs into being each and every second are always replicas (this can best be understood by a teleportation thought experiment.  See a relevant blog essay by me).    I agree with Blackmore that it's kind of liberating to feel that way.  However, that does nothing to make it true.

Finally, we have the famous Daniel Dennett, a philosopher, who, like Blackmore, outrightly rejects the concept of persisting selves.  He says:

The notion that the only thing that could persist is a little, special, unchangeable pearl of self-stuff seems like a fairly lame solution to the problem.

I agree with all four of the quoted philosophers/psychologist that it is extremely difficult to reconcile a persisting self with the notion that the brain produces such a self; indeed perhaps impossible.  But what if the brain doesn't produce consciousness?  In which case the commonsensical self -- what we might label an immaterial self or mental substance -- no longer encounters any such intractable difficulty.   It's of no avail simply stating it's a fairly lame solution.  I think this is simply a reflection of Dennett's view that science explains reality in its totality (i.e modern materialism) leaving no room for that which cannot be measured, a view which I emphatically reject.    

It seems that if we subscribe to materialism, or indeed any position that has the brain producing consciousness, we ought not just to reject an afterlife, but also the notion that we are selves that persist from one second to the next.  Very few people appear to understand how radical this brain produces consciousness thesis actually is. 

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Is the fear of death rational?

I'm not as afraid of dying as I used to be. It's probably the realisation I have perhaps 30 years left and I've come to terms with that fact, or at least I have to a degree. If one thinks a lot of one's impending death, then I think maybe death loses its sting a bit.

(As an aside, I was vastly more afraid of dying in my 20's. Having said that, I had flu when I was about 18. I was bedbound and at one point thought I might possibly die. I felt so ill that my fear of death, to a large extent, dissipated, and I remember thinking it wouldn't be so bad if I died. Yeah, this was flu, or so the doctor said who came to visit me. Up until then I thought flu was like a bad cold!)

So, why are we afraid of dying? Many people think such fear is irrational and like to quote Epicurus who is alleged to have said:
Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.
Of course he's assuming that death is the end of our existence. Let's go with that. Does that make one's fear of death irrational as Epicurus maintains? I don't think so. Contra Epicurus, I would dispute that it is death per se that we fear. Imagine that we could die for an hour, then come back to life again (similar happens under general anaesthesia). There would be no sense of nothingness, rather we would appear to awaken with no sense of time having passed whatsoever. It would be like teleportation, except through time rather than space. If there's little to no fear dying for an hour, then the same surely applies if we were dead for a day, a year, or arguably even a 1000 years.

No, it seems to me that the fear is of eternal nothingness. It's the idea that it is the end of all things. All our wants, desires, loves, fears, hopes, plans, are suddenly all to no avail. Whatever we have achieved (or whether we have achieved nothing), whoever we have loved or hated, all our hopes, yearnings, fears -- all collapse into complete irrelevance. We are all equal at the end. Because nothing will ever happen to us again. Our lives, our existence, all ultimately meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. In a sense, when we die, the Universe might as well cease to be.

Let me hasten to add that this doesn't mean we can't obtain many satisfactions in life (see this blog post by me). But, at some point, it will all be over. And whatever experiences we've lived through, we're now all in the same boat facing eternal oblivion.

All this is antipathetic and repugnant to the yearning soul. We fear from the bottom of our souls this abyss of nothingness. It appears to rob life of all meaning. Very deep inside us we feel, perhaps know, that this cannot be so.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

The Checker-Shadow "illusion" Part 2.



Around 15-20 years ago I had this sudden insight, a sudden understanding. It was pertaining to so-called perceptual illusions.  I suddenly realised that many so-called perceptual illusions are not in fact illusions at all. Close to ten years ago I wrote a blog post regarding the checker-shadow illusion where I explained that, in my opinion, properly speaking, this is not in fact an illusion at all. Before reading further I recommend that people read that blog post. I would also recommend that people read another blog post by me on perceptual illusions here.   And, although not necessary to read, this blog post too might be of interest.  

On searching on the net I've only ever been able to find one person who holds the same opinion as I do that this shadow-checker "illusion" is not in fact an illusion at all.  And that was merely on a discussion forum.  Indeed, I have been vehemently attacked on this issue by many people (although it is clear to me they simply completely fail to understand my argument). Anyway, just a couple of days ago, I discovered a very interesting review of a book regarding colours and which talks about the checker-shadow illusion.  It says:
“Illusion” implies that our system is fooled, but as far as useful information goes, the checkerboard interpretation is probably better. Try as they might, mathematicians can’t make the computers see the checkerboard. Rather than a demonstration of how easily fooled we are, optical illusions like this one are examples of the brain’s mysterious and irreplicable abilities. It interprets its environment with a sophistication that exceeds our ability to measure and reconstruct physical phenomena. The usual framing has it wrong: Despite A and B having the same SSR, humans are still able to see the checkerboard.

First of all, it's gratifying to at last find someone else that agrees with me.  Two other people actually, both the author of the book and the reviewer.

But, anyway, this underscores the fact that in certain respects computers, at least if merely using visual information, cannot see as well as we do.  The fact that computers cannot see the checkerboard implies that they cannot see their environment very well at all.  This is why autonomous cars can't just rely on cameras but require other sensing methods such as LIDAR.  It also partially explains why fully autonomous cars might still be decades away.  Back in 2014 I predicted 2060, which at that time was vastly later than all the predictions of the various pundits.  Almost to the man they thought that fully autonomous cars would be widespread within 5-20 years.

So, despite using highly sophisticated algorithms, computers still cannot see as well as we do.  An interesting question is why can't they?  Why can't they see the checkerboard?  If it is merely the brain that enables us to see, then whatever physical processes are involved, they surely should be able to be matched by suitably sophisticated algorithms.  To me their failure in this regard suggests that something else is required, that consciousness in and of itself  is playing a pivotal role that is enabling us to see proficiently.



Sunday, 30 August 2020

Comments on a guest essay about Materialism and Idealism

I've just read this guest essay by a certain Stephen Davies on Bernardo Kastrup's blog. I'm not particularly keen on his strategy of comparing the hard problem of consciousness with Zeno's paradoxes, but I'd like to comment and expand on some of his more direct points and arguments.

He says: 
[W]e need to briefly explore what the hard problem of consciousness is, and to do that we need to look at the metaphysical philosophy of materialism. Simply stated, this asserts that everything is made of matter, of physical stuff. You may wonder why such a seemingly obvious and self-explanatory statement requires the title of a metaphysical philosophy. The reason is that materialism isn’t just saying that there are physical things, it is saying everything is physical. Materialism is saying that the thoughts you are having now are physical; it is saying that the curious and unique mix of emotions you are subjectively experiencing at this very moment are purely and solely physical material things. And it is saying that the awareness that witnesses all these subjective feelings is physical. This no longer seems so obvious, does it?
I'm in agreement with all of this. They are saying the material stuff out there -- trees, rocks, stars etc -- is the same type of stuff as toothache, feeling angry, or indeed the experience of seeing said trees, rocks and stars. And the experiencer or self who undergoes all these experiences is also material! But what is the cash value of this, what does it actually mean? My experiences, emotions, thoughts etc don't have any attributes we conceive the material world as having -- so no shape, no size, no mass, no electric charge etc. Moreover, our consciousness appears to be invisible. I cannot see your consciousness, you cannot see mine. It can only be inferred from our behaviour, not directly detected.
Not only does it perhaps seem a little strange to assume that all our mental, emotional and spiritual experiences, and the subjective experiencer, are actually objective, external and physical, materialists have absolutely no idea, even in principle, how matter could possibly create our rich inner life of conscious awareness and experience. This is what is referred to as the hard problem of consciousness.
Their solution is often to identify consciousness with neural processes or, alternatively, what such processes do NB it is not being said here that neural processes cause or elicit conscious experiences, but rather our conscious experiences are nothing but such neural processes. If you think this is utterly nonsensical, then you get it, it is. A bit like saying ice cream is literally one and the same thing as sand, or identifying any 2 completely different objects as being one and the very same object.

So, even though it might be true that conscious experiences are inevitably correlated with neural processes, this doesn't justify materialism. At the very most, this might lead us to say the neural processes cause or elicit [non-material] conscious experiences. But then we get the problem that the author of this essay states; namely "how matter could possibly create our rich inner life of conscious awareness and experience". I myself try to explain this problem in my Brains affecting Minds do not rule out an Afterlife and I also explain there that even if there were no such problem, this still fails to show that such correlations compel the conclusion that the brain creates consciousness.
But what of science? Isn’t the indisputable and phenomenal success of science and technology proof that materialism is an extremely successful theory? No. Science is agnostic on metaphysical philosophy. The scientific method and all the advances and technological breakthroughs that follow, work perfectly well regardless of your philosophical beliefs. That is, in fact, its strength: it relies on empirical data, not belief.
Yes, material reality exhibits patterns, science describes such patterns using mathematics. How could that possibly connote that consciousness is material? It seems to me to be similar to someone exclaiming that given how successful metal detectors are at finding metal objects, anything that is not registered by the detector, such as plastic objects, must be really metal in disguise or else illusory. It's that silly.
The metaphysical theory that everything is matter is a philosophy, not a scientific fact. But we can go further and say that even the assumption that there is any matter at all, is equally a theory and a philosophical assumption, not a scientific fact. The idea that there is physical matter outside of our conscious experience is just that, an idea. We only know for sure that we have subjective experience; we cannot know for sure what constitutes that experience. The only thing we know for sure is our immediate experience of being subjectively aware. Everything we can ever possibly know can only be known by us within and via the medium of our subjective experience.
Yes, we cannot know that a material reality exists at all if what we mean by a material reality is material stuff having a full-blooded existence entirely independently of consciousness. One alternative is Berkeley's Idealism otherwise known as subjective idealism. I talk about Berkeley's subjective idealism here (this isn't quite the same as Kastrup's idealism).
In contrast to this idealist view of the world, a materialist philosophy posits an external and objective physical world that is not directly knowable. Our only experience of such a world, if it exists at all, is through our subjective experiences. The idea that there is such an objective external physical world is an abstraction thought up by consciousness. And it is an abstract theory that is becoming less and less supported by the results of our best scientific experiments in quantum mechanics.
Yes, for example, is this material external world coloured? Are there sounds and smells out there? In other words, is this material reality similar to our perceptions of it? Not according to the standard scientific story. To be honest, I do not think you have to be an idealist to emphatically reject this scientific story. I regard it as preposterous this notion that objects are not really coloured but are a creation of the mind.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

The self or soul as a mental substance

Mental Substance


What is a mental substance? I think it can best be understood by contrasting mental substances with material substances. Think of material objects. They have properties such as their weight, whether they are dented, their colour and so on. These properties cannot exist by themselves, they are not freestanding, they belong to a material substance. Material substances, on the other hand, exist in and of themselves and are the bearer of such properties. Crucially, the properties can change but without changing the identity of the object or substance. So, for example, a table might acquire certain types of scratches, its colour might fade and so on as it grows older, but, despite these changes, it is still the very same table or the very same substance as it ages.

The concept of a substance and its properties also apply to the realm of the mental. There are experiences, for example, the experience of pain. But one can argue a pain doesn't exist all by itself, there has to be a self that undergoes the pain. Experiences, in other words, are seemingly always had by an experiencer, or self.

This self is called the mental substance. This self remains the same identical self throughout our lives. It is the I. It is that which makes me feel I am the very same person from one hour to the next, one day to the next, and one year to the next. My moods might change from one hour to the next, my interests and even intelligence might change from one year to the next, nevertheless, it is still me that undergoes all these changes. The I or me is the mental substance; contrariwise the moods, cognitive abilities, memories, interests and so on are the properties of the self/mental substance. These properties can change without me ceasing to exist and turning into another person. 

To try and illustrate my meaning here imagine someone throughout their lives wearing a pair of spectacles.  The lenses will age, acquire scratches and so on.  In addition, the lenses might be changed periodically.  As a result, even if that person's unaided vision remains the same, their bespectacled vision will change throughout their life.  And such changes need not be confined to the acuity of their vision.  They could have lenses that cast everything in a shade of colour or distort their vision in a particular manner.  They could even have lenses that render them unable to see at all.

Our unaided vision can analogically be compared to the mental substance/self. The bespectacled vision can analogically be compared to one's particular mental state at any time, or our minds.   Just as changes in the lenses influence our bespectacled vision but not our unaided vision, so too might changes in the brain influence our mental states (the properties of the self) but not our essence (the mental substance).

Notwithstanding the fact that throughout our lives our moods, cognitive abilities and so on continually change, we all still feel that we are nevertheless the very same self throughout our lives.  This is so even for those who reject an afterlife.  So the mental substance/self that I have described seems to align up to most peoples intuitions as to what they truly are.

Note that this self I have outlined is not the same as the sense of self just as a sense of a tree is not the same as the tree itself. Few of us would deny that we have at least a sense of self.  But most professional philosophers reject this notion of an actual self, they believe it is an illusion.

Should there be an afterlife it is my view that it is this self or mental substance that will survive.  In which case the self or mental substance can be referred to as one's soul.


Alleged problems with such a mental substance or soul


In The Soul Fallacy, the author Julien Musolino refers to the analogy of a radio. He says that this involves:
the idea that the brain does not cause the mind, but that it merely serves as a gateway for it, just like a radio set functions as a receiver and decoder of electromagnetic waves.
He goes on to say:
A radio set (or a TV, if you prefer) and the signal it receives are separate things, and so they can exist independently of each other ...  Destroy the receptor, and you still have the signal. Obliterate the brain and you still have the soul.
This then seems to be essentially the same type of analogy as my own analogy of spectacles.  So just as destroying a radio will have no effect on the signal, so too destroying one's spectacles clearly will have no effect on our unaided vision.

However, Julien Musolino is not impressed with such analogies.  He goes on to say:

a few moment's reflection reveal so many dead-ends, contradictions, and nonsensical implications that it will make your head spin.

For starters, the receptor view of the brain doesn't even begin to respond to the challenge posed for dualism by what we called the fragility of the mind. If damaging only parts of the brain can annihilate just about every aspect of our mind, then by what miracle would the complete destruction of our brain following death leave us with all our mental faculties intact so that we can recognize Uncle Fred in heaven? If the soul needs a functioning brain to be able to think, see, and feel, then how could it perform these functions without a brain at all?

But, of course, the whole purpose of the analogy is to convey the idea that the soul doesn't need a functioning brain to think, see, and feel.  If the lenses in my spectacles get dirtier and dirtier as time goes by, this can have no implications for my unaided vision when I take my spectacles off.   He needs to argue that this analogy is false or inappropriate.  Instead, he seems to have completely missed its point.

He also says:

Does the all-or-nothing radio-brain view entail that the soul signal gives rise to my entire mental life? Are the languages I speak, the memories I have, the skills I possess all the product of something beamed into my brain from above? My suspicion is that the reason I speak French and English is because I grew up in France and then moved to the United States. I am also convinced that my memories have to do with the people I've met and the places I've visited in this world. If certain aspects of my mind are the obvious consequence of my dealings with the denizens of the physical world, then what exactly is the soul signal supposed to do? Does it just make me conscious?
One's memories and acquired skills are clearly not part of the mental substance, they are, rather, acquired properties.  Also, it should be noted that the self or soul doesn't make one conscious any more than a table makes its colour or shape etc.  That is to say, a substance doesn't make its properties, a substance is the prerequisite requirement for the very existence of any properties. 

It seems to me that Julien Musolino doesn't appear to have any understanding of what he's attacking.  And he essentially says nothing else regarding the analogy.  So much for the aforementioned "dead-ends, contradictions, and nonsensical implications that it will make your head spin".

Two other people I've read that attack this analogy, but equally and independently misunderstand it, and in precisely the same manner, are Keith Augustine and Steven Novella. Keith Augustine is one of the editors and is by far the most prolific contributor to The Myth of an Afterlife (I wrote a ~13,000 word assessment of the arguments contained in that volume here).  In that book Keith Augustine says:

It doesn’t take much reflection to see that a television receiver is a terrible analogy for making sense of known mind-brain correlations. For the analogues would have to be:
Broadcast station → Electromagnetic signal → TV receiver → TV program images 
External soul ↔ Interactive forces ↔ Brain ↔ Behavior
On this analogy, mental activity itself occurs in the external soul, just as the images of a television program originate from the broadcast station. But no damage to the local circuitry of your TV set can have any effect on the television program recording playing at the remote broadcast station, or on the signal that the station puts out.

Steven Novella  raises the same objection, except he invokes the plot of TV programmes rather than the TV signal.  He says:

A more accurate analogy would be this – can you alter the wiring of a TV in order to change the plot of a TV program? Can you change a sitcom into a drama? Can you change the dialogue of the characters? Can you stimulate one of the wires in the TV in order to make one of the on-screen characters twitch?

Well, that is what would be necessary in order for the analogy to hold.

But the fact that the TV set can have no effect on the TV signal/plot of a programme is the very point. Or, to use the simpler analogy, the fact that the eyeglasses have no effect on our unaided vision is the very point.  For it is the TV signal/unaided vision that represents the mental substance/self.  They are conflating the mind, which is what results when the self operates through the brain, with the mental substance/self/soul.  In my many communications with Keith Augustine (e.g. in the comments under my amazon review of this book and elsewhere) I have pointed out his misunderstanding on this issue, but in his responses he has always ignored this particular point.  I'm also pretty sure I've pointed out this misunderstanding to Steven Novella too.

What would destroy the analogy and the whole concept of mental substance would be if damage to the brain could alter the actual mental substance rather than merely affecting its properties.  However, this is a difficult task since there is not much we can say about this substance apart from it being responsible for the feeling that we are the very same self throughout the duration of our lives and serving as the bearer of properties. Moreover, that feeling need not be constantly present.

 

Conclusion


So long as we feel we are the same self as time passes the default assumption should surely be that this is correct unless compelling reasons are advanced to doubt this.  And they would need to be compelling indeed since I'm sure the vast majority of us are convinced of our persisting nature, at least from our births until our deaths.  

Finally, is such an enduring self/mental substance consistent with the notion that the brain somehow produces this self? Consider that my brain changes all the time. Could a constantly changing brain produce a self that is unchanging?  Arguably this is problematic.  Hence this notion that we are mental substances implies both an afterlife and indeed "beforelife". And this is before we consider any evidence for an afterlife.




Thursday, 9 July 2020

No, I don't Hate Science

Apples fall. That is to say, if we hold an apple, then release it, then it will fall to the ground.

Why does it? Why not just stay there in the air, or move upwards, or whatever?

Throughout history human beings have dreamt up explanations for this fact, not just for why apples fall, but why any unsupported object falls. Aristotle gave a teleological account; namely that objects have a goal-directed behaviour to move downwards to the ground. Isaac Newton dispensed with goal-directed behaviour and said that objects fall due to this thing called gravitational force, a thing only known via its effects. Albert Einstein then came along and said objects fall due to the warping of space-time, this warping again only known via its effects.

Throughout these differing explanations, apples still fall. The rate at which they fall i.e the acceleration, can be quantified. We can note that they fall at the same acceleration irrespective of their weight.

More generally the material world exhibits regularities and we can describe these regularities using mathematical equations. No matter what our explanations for these regularities, no more how regularly such explanations might change, reality still exhibits the same patterns.

Don't imagine I pooh pooh such scientific explanations though. They can be very useful! Look at the gif below:



How do we explain the movement of the black dots? We can hypothesis the existence of invisible triangles! Clearly, the apexes of these invisible triangles somehow give rise to the black dots. Such an explanation is useful, it allows us to confidently mathematically describe the path of the black dots. We have given a scientific explanation! All done and dusted. And anyone who denies the existence of these triangles is being unscientific and must hate science (I have often been accused of being anti-science and even hating science).

But hold on just a sec. We could equally hypothesize invisible squares too. Or invisible stars! Which is the real underlying explanation, the real mechanism? Perhaps, to be very radical, none of them are?

We don't know why reality behaves as it does. Yes, reality exhibits regular patterns that can be mathematically described. But we don't know why it exhibits those particular patterns, or why reality exhibits any patterns at all. Nor indeed do we know why the world/universe exists at all.

Science doesn't explain, it doesn't tell us why reality is as it is. It merely describes. Bear that in mind when someone next tells you that some phenomenon couldn't possibly be for real. They are assuming that our scientific explanations amount to more than mere descriptions. That their explanations depict how reality really is. That the triangles, or perhaps the squares, or perhaps the stars, have a literal existence.


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