Mind over matter - a short exposé

I mentioned a few things (the last blog on fear; in Dutch) about transcendency and pointed at the disappearance of mind in our current culture. Well, we still use the word ‘mind’, but it seems to me that it is used rather metaphorically than anything else.

Neurobiology has taken over, it seems. Our thoughts are, so the reductive story goes, firing neurons, and our fear is biologically ingrained as mechanism of survival. I am cutting corners here, of course.

Okay. Let’s make a list of what a human being is (not trying to be exhaustive here):

  1. Matter (atoms bonded together in molecules)
  2. A (whole) bunch of interacting bio-molecules
  3. An animal
  4. A mammal
  5. A unique entity of the human race
  6. Capable of social interactions (friendship, partnership)
  7. Has a first-person perspective
  8. (Self-)conscious
  9. Capable of rational thought

In the current intellectual climate,1 – 4 are uncontroversial (and actually quite boring); 5 and 6 are clearly observable (with a little help of science). However, 7 – 9 are a lot more tricky. How tricky? Let’s rehash the words of Erwin Schrödinger here:

“So we are faced with the following remarkable situation. While the stuff from which our world picture is built is yielded exclusively from the sense organs as organs of the mind, so that every man’s world picture is and always remains a construct of his mind and cannot be proved to have any other existence, yet the conscious mind itself remains a stranger within that construct, it has no living space in it, you can spot it nowhere in space. We do not usually realize this fact, because we have entirely taken to thinking of the personality of a human being … as located in the interior of its body. To learn that it cannot really be found there is so amazing that it meets with doubt and hesitation, we are very loath to admit it. …”

The picture modern science paints of the natural world (which includes us!) is thus bereft of sensory qualities and of anything personal.

Yet, as Schrödinger observes, the picture itself exists within the minds of persons and takes as its evidential base the senses, and thus the very sensory qualities and consequences it refuses to locate in nature.

We stumble here on the so-called qualia problem. This has to do with the question of why any material states or processes, such as the neurological, would be connected to any qualitative character of the sort conscious experiences possess, such as perceiving the colour red or purple, experiencing pleasure, joy, fulfilment and so on.

Modern physics tells us that a material object of any kind is ultimately nothing more than a collection of elementary particles (atoms, molecules and their interactions), including the sushi dish (great fan!!) whose appearance and aroma makes your mouth water, and whose flavours and textures, intensely (I hope) experienced by you as you eat it, brings great satisfaction.

The molecules comprising the slices of tuna, salmon, rice, sea urchin and what have you have none of these features. No colour, odour, taste, or texture. Yet these features do in some sense exist in your mind, in your experiences of that sushi that melts in your mouth. But then the mind is just blatantly different from the brain, for it has qualities that the brain does not have, as the brain is just as material as anything else. And this is the conundrum.

Mind thus seems more than matter itself and that might not be a problem at all, if only we did not live in a world where mind-as-something-more-than-matter hardly seems acceptable. It sounds positively spooky and should not be part of us. We want to understand us in terms of 1-6. For the rest of the points, we are, scientifically speaking, at al loss. As I stated in by final blog on Bregman’s book:

If we are just reasonably advanced primates that can have no more than the illusion of moral duty, in the most friendliest of ways of course, then morality, science, love, goodness, and so on are only means to further reproductive ends and maximise our individual fitness. Nothing else.

But of course, science is reductive in nature. And what it does not observe, it cannot see or understand within that reductive method. But subsequently claiming that those things you cannot see/understand cannot exist is foolish. The claim that only metals exist does not follow from the fact metal detectors are very efficient tools to discover metal objects.

Or, look at it this way. In a materialistic world view, truth about something seems hard to get. Lewis had a great way of illustrating this in his De Futilitate (italics added):

“We are compelled to admit between the thoughts of a terrestrial astronomer and the behaviour of matter several light-years away that particular relation which we call truth. But this relation has no meaning at all if we try to make it exist between the matter of the star and the astronomer’s brain, considered as a lump of matter. The brain may be in all sorts of relations to the star no doubt: it is in a spatial relation, and a time relation, and a quantitative relation. But to talk of one bit of matter as being true about another bit of matter seems to me to be nonsense.”

This is an old puzzle already put forward by Democritus (roughly 5th century B.C.), one of the fathers of atomism: “By convention sweet and by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention colour; but in reality atoms and void.”

It must be emphasised that Democritus, commendably, identified a difficulty facing a theory that he himself endorses, and we have no idea how, or if, he tried to settle it:

“Wretched mind, you get your evidence from us, and yet you overthrow us? The overthrow is a fall for you.”

Indeed. And fall we do if we reduce ourselves to the mammalian state only. Fear is one of those mammalian states, and fears we have too many I would say. Time to recapture our rational side and accept its transcendence above and beyond the material. As Lewis would have it in his A Grief Observed:

To make an organism which is also a spirit; to make that terrible oxymoron, a ‘spiritual animal.’ To take a poor primate, a beast with nerve-endings all over it, a creature with a stomach that wants to be filled, a breeding animal that wants its mate, and say, ‘Now get on with it. Become a god.’


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