Nothing Else Matters III

The Windmills Of Our Minds

The ‘spiritualist’ sees the mind as the biggest proof of the existence of the ‘something more’; a source of ‘self’ that puts him above animals but below the ‘divine’. The materialist sees the human mind as an incremental mental step away from animals and an incidental result of Evolution entirely contained within the brains’ physics. To the materialist we are, de facto, squishy machines. This is the 3rd post in our series defending ‘Materialism’. In our earlier posts we dealt with many charges against physical materialism from the direction of ‘mystic’, ‘new-age Science’ and even some scientists. Before that we ‘updated’ a notion of materialism or physicalism to meet any naive critiques formed from a badly understood post-Higgs world. The last refuge of the immaterial philosophy to review however, is also the hardest one, if not the most important one to address: The human Mind.

Consciousness is the sensation of being inside ourselves, of having an integrated ‘soul’ tied to -but distinct from- the material body. This feeling is so profound that the notion that we have a spiritual ‘essence’ is the one commonality among all religions. The one thing they more or less seem to agree on. Without it there would be no -need for- religion and no -need for- god, since, ostensibly, animals don’t seem to entertain this rather absurd notion. Consequentially in all religions animals are treated as distinct from humans, either in a positive way like in animism or negatively like in all Abrahamic religions. Perhaps this explains why ‘Evolution’ has irked so much protest in spite of the massive amounts of evidence that support it or it’s lack of practical impact on the daily life of the religious.

Electroencephalogram of brain activity
Electrical signals in our brains trigger neurons, going round like a circle in a spiral …

Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel
As the images unwind, like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind!

The revolution will not be televised

The impact of mankind finally understanding human-consciousness to the point that it can be understood, modelled and augmented is such that it could potentially trigger a scientific revolution with greater impact than all previous revolutions combined. If you know that previous revolutions transported us from ‘the Caves to the Moon’, this is no small claim at all. This potential is why massive budgets, prizes and scholarships are being attributed to researching human- and artificial-consciousness every day. And although this revolution will not be televised, it is happening right now and your life is already different because of it. As scientific revolutions go, this one is less like the discovery of ‘fire’ and more like the domestication of plants and agriculture. Meaning it is less a matter of ‘discovery’; less a binary ‘knowing’ vs ‘not knowing’, but more like a process that will take hundreds of years to complete and which’ unknown consequences will echo for all millennia to come. Even if we are only moderately successful in this endeavour there is a ‘1492’-year in our future when we are met by a technically vastly superior ‘alien’ civilisation.. of our own making.

During this revolution, like in the Neolithic revolution, we can expect a gradual increase in our understanding of consciousness. A step on a road of unknown length, if not seemingly infinite. Columbus never knew he landed in America and likewise we may not fully appreciate the ‘watershed’ moment until decades after it passed. Keeping ‘flat-earthers’ in mind though, even a complete ‘theory of consciousness’ if we were to construct it, would never convince all that consciousness was entirely material in origin. 2.5 millennia after the Earth’s sphericalness was first construed ‘Flat-Earth’ is still more represented on Youtube than any contemporary discovered scientific theory. Furthermore, despite my optimism, it is still very much an open question if such a feat is even within human capacity. Human consciousness may turn out to be an NP-problem that has no ‘reduced model’, no shorter formula or algorithm for predicting it’s outcome, than to run the entire system for the duration.

Currently immaterialism has no credible venues, no reproducible symptoms to hint at the existence of something more than merely that what is connected to the material and the physical. Only in that part of our own consciousness we do not fully grasp just yet, may they find something still, or so they think. The result of this discussion, and therefore of the entire immaterial realm, hinges on the scientific progress in this one field. Going of past patterns we’d expect any progress to favour the materialist view and any remaining unknowns to shore up immaterialist claims, similar to the ‘God-of-the-gaps’ position it basically is.

1. Dualists versus Physicalists

The dualist view on ‘Mind’ and ‘Soul’ is similar to the dualist view on the rest of reality: it holds that there exist things that can’t be explained or even connected back to the physical atoms and forces. Specifically for them our self-consciousness is such a thing. While I am arguing the materialist side in this discussion it must be clear to the reader that much of this is a ‘believe’ and a conviction. We think ‘things’ work like that. No side can make a claim for complete knowledge here simply because Science doesn’t have even a semi-complete model of consciousness just yet. The truth is we still don’t quite know what, if anything, consciousness is. Which is why this discussion boils down to two potential fallacies:

  1. One assuming the human mind is immaterial since it seems unbelievable that the brain could produce it. An ‘Argument from Incredulity’.
  2. The other assuming the human mind must be material since no evidence has been presented to disprove it. An ‘Argument from Ignorance’.

The difference between these sides is that the immaterialist side uses an assumed ‘Soul’ as proof of a huge immaterial reality, which is a pretty big claim, thus requiring ‘big’ evidence. Evidence which most Mind-dualists aren’t even looking for. Instead we see on the one hand general immaterialists referring the ‘Soul’ as indication that immaterialism is plausible and on the other Mind-dualists implicitly referring to broader immaterialism when it comes to clarifying what ‘stuff’ their ‘Soul’ is made off.The materialist side however, with advances both in math (Graph-Theory and Collective-Network-Inferencing), Computational-Neurology and Artificial-Intelligence is making tangible inroads on a physical model. A model that includes the individual processes which they believe make up ‘consciousness’. Admittedly, all without knowing if they will ever ‘get there’ or if this base assumption is even correct.

Still I’m here to argue the latter has sufficiently evolved to the point we can say we don’t need a complete description of consciousness to argue it is very likely of a purely material nature. If I make my case convincingly the reader should feel that instead of using human ‘souls’ as an argument for immaterialism, mind-body dualism is starting to look like such a leap away from the plausible that itself actually requires proof of immaterialism to be even considerable. It’s time the immaterialists drop the circular reasoning: ‘Elephants are clearly awesome at hiding in strawberry fields because no one ever saw them do it; while obviously the only possible reason that no one ever saw them do it is because they are so awesome at it.’

Lacking a complete description of what consciousness is, both sides are condemned to field arguments about mere aspects of it. The dualist side will be proposing aspects that can’t be material in their origin. As a materialist I will try to rebuttal their most fielded arguments, while showing in turn where other key components of consciousness are proven to be confined to processes in the brain. We will start with a few examples to slowly introduce the reader into the daunting scale to which we are unable to understand our own self. [In this post we will mostly be looking at human consciousness and the subjective, more philosophical, perspectives on it. The next post will include the more objective domains of artificial consciousness, biology, neurology and information theory.

At a risk of over-iterating the point of what is at stake, confident as I am that in my prior posts I rebutted immaterialism on all other domains using mostly the scientific consensus: Consciousness is the last strong-hold where immaterial-phenomena can seriously speaking still be contemplated without violating direct scientific observation. It is the only possibility there just might be something outside of physics. So if there are no ‘Souls’, then there is no Caspar-The-Friendly-Ghost; then there are no Angels, no-one is hearing your prayers beyond the reach of your voice because there is no ‘Heaven’ and THERE IS. NO. GOD!

So let us begin…

2. Are our feelings a type of ‘thoughts’?

If I had to summarize a core question to identify on which side one would fall in this discussion I think a good example would be: “are your feelings also thoughts?”. In debates on religion ‘The Subjective’ is always dismissed as irrelevant and indicative of a weak position. Your feeling the presence of God is not acceptable proof of his existence. The same can’t be said however, when those feelings themselves are the subject of discussion. Your -feeling like you have feelings- is most definitely a strong argument for their existence. Denying their existence would be akin to solipsism and perhaps a symptom of sociopathic tendencies. Rather than denying feelings we must inquire what their fundamental nature is by displaying the ways they manifest and are experienced. The reason this question is so central in a discussion about the ‘Soul’ is because ‘consciousness’ can be vaguely approximated as the ‘sum of our feelings and thoughts’. The question is whether these things are separate things, physically things or if one or both of them are in fact [partially] non-physical.

Admitted we certainly don’t experience feelings like all other thoughts and it would seem, to me, they ‘feel’ more deeply ingrained within our ‘core’. Sadness, Shame, Disgust, Anger, Fear, Surprise, Joy they certainly seem distinct from a mundane cognitive ‘I may need to go to the shop.’ -type of idea. A jump-scare in a horror-movie does not trigger a ‘oh, I am so scared’ – thought but rather a ‘DANGER, DANGER, FLIGHT, FIGHT, DEATH!!’-overload on a much more fundamental level. Nor can it be said that math-results like ‘2 + 2 = 4’ ever moved anyone to tears. The question is, if this means they actually have an existence outside our material brain. If everything is material, then what exactly is this ‘survival-instinct’ with which we cling to life with? What specifically is the weight.. of fear?

Feelings don’t appear to be tied to the ‘inner voice’ for example. The one we sometimes are aware of and sometimes use without noticing it much. For instance it is not possible for me to write this sentence without also saying it to myself inside my head. Nor is it possible for you to read it without ‘narrating’ it. If you didn’t you’d likely need to return to the beginning of the sentence as you possibly wouldn’t remember ‘what it said’ by the time you reached the end. Feelings are not like that, they are not something ‘we tell ourselves’. On the other hand we do demonstrate a lot of other brain-activities without verbalising them. If the light turns green we don’t verbalise ‘I need to advance’. Yet neither do these type of decisions seem ‘soul-bound’ like real emotions appear to be. So it would seem that both feelings and non-feelings contribute to the non-declarative activity of our brain. Maybe in that context it is useful to distinguish ‘thoughts’ from ‘ideas’, with the first indicating brain-activity in general and the second indicating declarative-brain-activity.

That feelings do in fact have a material basis in the brain is indicated to me by the ease with which they can be chemically manipulated. Not only anti-depression medicine is proof of this, other drugs and ample physical afflictions have symptoms that affect mood in a very profound way. In fact, neurotransmitters, the chemical messenger-molecules that communicate our brain-signals, are so key to emotions that their effects are quantifiable and deterministic. Furthermore emotions have such an impact on our cognitive behaviour that by use of hormones our very behaviour can be profoundly affected even directed to a degree. Promiscuity, depression, manic tendencies, passiveness, aggression, even sexual-orientation all have either deterministic relations with chemistry or at least strong correlations with them. The part of the brain where emotional-stimuli are assessed is called the amygdala. Patients who’ve suffered strokes in or near that part of the brain report feeling in constant ‘danger’. Depending on the part of the brain where brain-damage is found a multitude of predictable emotional diversions takes place, ranging from constant sadness to the inability to recognise danger. If your feelings weren’t thoughts these correlations would be hard to explain.

3. Memory and the ‘Essence’ of who we are

If consciousness is part of a duality, with a personal ‘essence’ or ‘Soul’ sitting on top of the brain it is strange that ‘memory’ does not seem to be a part of that very ‘essence’ of who we are. It is strange because, on a emotional level, one would think that ‘who they are’ is for most people captured in their memories. Memories drive their decisions, memories is what they like to impart and share with one another. Even though they may clinically still be alive, when the last memories have faded from the Alzheimer patient we describe them as ‘being completely gone’. And yet it is clear that memory, even though we scarcely understand how it works, is a purely physical phenomenon.

As much is clear from the fact that our memory follows the development and status of the brain like a shadow. It is the reason for the common expression ‘one of my earliest memories’. Because although our parents tell us we were very much alive in the first 3 to 4 years after out birth, even demonstrating cognitive abilities as talking and walking, to us it seems life began around Kindergarten, if just fragmentarily so at best. As our brains grew and got to the observable complexity of adults so did our ability to memorize start to resemble that of grown-ups. It is not coincidently around the time we store our first life-long memories that we start referring to things beyond the immediate context of where we are. As our brain grows in 3 dimensions so does the scope of our abilities follow an exponential increase rather than a linear one. It is this geometrical fact that allows an impotent infant, with fewer abilities than a cow of similar age, to catch up with the entire stack of human evolution both biologically as culturally and sometimes even surpass it.

That none of this is attributable to the parallel ‘development’ of a ‘spirit’ or soul is proven by the fact that these abilities are equally, if negatively, impacted the moment anything interferes with the brain physically. Any occurring lesions, deposits, tumours or oxygen starvation will impact the abilities with the same exponential logic and do so with a deterministic precision that can be narrowed down to the part of the brain the influence is detected in. So if there is a Soul or duality to our consciousness it is clear that our memories are not a part of it. This, in turn, raises the question: “if you weren’t allowed to bring any of your memories along, the life-long memories of what you did, who you knew and who you loved; would you even want to go to Heaven for all eternity?” Perhaps it was from realising this possibility that Ancient Greek Homer extracted the image of an afterlife on the banks of the Styx river, through which the dead roamed as shadows of themselves, having lost most of their memories and whose bleak fortune could only be mitigated by the living keeping their memories alive instead.

Painting of lost souls at the edge of the Styx river.
Memory-less souls confused and abandoned in the Greek after-life.

4.0 The hard problem of consciousness

If you are like me, a naturalistic atheist, you may have learned as a child, rather as an abstract notion, that your thoughts simply reside in your brain and further on paid it no mind [pun intended ☺]. Later on you may also have met people whose brain, for one reason or another, wasn’t all that; resulting in behaviour that confirmed to you that ‘who we are’ is seemingly exclusively determined by the wet sponge beneath our skull. Combined with the sheer absence of ‘magic dust’ in other places you therefore may have come to the conclusion that this ‘Soul’- thing or ‘Spirit’ was just a bunch of make-believe on top of wishful thinking. However, if you are already a materialist who has accepted that the ‘you which is you’ is locked inside your brain and void of any ‘transcendental’ components, it is likely you may also have bypassed several of the aspects that make the ‘problem of consciousness’ actually a hard problem. Because to truly appreciate what it means to have a mind should probably make you wet your trousers from the sheer realisation of the implications regarding rarity, responsibility, vulnerability, probability and mortality this entails.

Between You, a Tree and a Rock you share 4 dimensions of space-time, the laws of physics and all of chemistry; you are merely the object with the second most exotic atoms, yet somehow you are the only one, out of all three, that gets to say ‘I am here. This is Me!’. The Universe consists of more stars than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of all the oceans on this planet, yet for many solutions to ‘The Fermi Paradox’ we are the only part of that Universe that can think, that actually, fundamentally knows it exists.

But the real hard part of consciousness isn’t even how rare it is by comparison to the Universe, how few information-units there seem to be with respect to rocks or ice; but rather that it doesn’t stop at that point! It doesn’t stop at the point where we are CPU’s that can successfully recombine information about our surroundings. Instead of being to the Universe what the CPU is to the remainder of the computer, we aren’t mere automatons or cogs, instead we actually experience ourselves as being alive. Instead of just being soggy computers that can think, we are soggy computers that can think about our own thinking, about ourselves and who we are. It feels like something to be us and this feeling is different from signal feelings like ‘pain’ or ‘success’, in fact it feels like this feeling IS us! Like there’s a essence in us that can ‘observe’ all the other feelings and all the incoming information a go ‘yep, that figures!’, while rolling our eyes.

As naturalists and evolutionists we have no qualms with dealing with big things that are composed of many, many smaller things. A few million years a dinosaur make, after all. So it is no surprise to us that when you have many, many slightly different images of something and you put them in the right order and ‘run’ them at 24 frames/second that an entirely different thing emerges to constitute a ‘movie’ with properties like ‘duration’, ‘subject’, ‘plot’ and ‘structure’; properties that were not present in the images themselves. We can imagine that our consciousness is like that ‘movie’, in that it is something that ’emerges’ from a lot of components working in tandem. This movie can function as a ‘stand-in’ metaphor for our consciousness flowing from physical elements. But if our consciousness is like that film, is that film, to whom is it then emerging?! Who is watching the emerging properties of ‘duration’, ‘structure’ and ‘feelings’? Can the movie watch itself or experience being run? So even if our feelings are in fact inseparable from the material brain, composed of many synchronised signals, we still remain with this sense of ‘being ourselves’, this self-awareness, that in contrast to the sensation in our fingers seems to ‘float’ separately from the body. Now suddenly it doesn’t sound as simple anymore, does it? The claims of -us having immortal souls that can exist away from our body- now sound rather more alien than ridiculous. The concept of ghosts and gods just became a little harder to dismiss off hand.

The ‘Hard Problem of Consciousness’ was coined in 1994 by a dualist, David Chalmers, who actually rose to fame on this topic by posing questions like ‘Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life?’ It is not a bad question if not slightly over-informed from an computer-tech point of view. We can build very elaborate information-processing-units and don’t have the slightest doubt that they are not self-conscious. David Chalmers’ question assumes that our brain-hardware would permit to have all this information processing while not having also ‘an inner life’, just because the computers we put inside robots seem to be able to have the one without the other. But the hardware and functionality of both is entirely different. [We will be comparing both in our next post]

Instead of looking at something only tangential related and asking why it’s got different properties we should look at very similar things and ask if and how slight changes to these impact the properties we wish to learn more about. That’s how Science is done. So we should first look at ‘systems’ with the same hardware (if slightly smaller) and pose questions like: Do cats have an inner life? If they don’t, why? If they do, do we have examples of cat-art, cat-love or cat-depressions that would suggest this inner life is similar in complexity to ours? Or is it proportionally smaller than ours? But if it is smaller than ours does this not already suggest materialism, because why would a smaller brain also automatically imply a smaller ‘Soul’? If it is not obviously smaller, then can we still say the same about a pigeon? Is a Guiney pig conscious? Does the brain of an ant still allow it to have a ‘Soul’? Because if it doesn’t, exactly at what size animal does it become soulless or ‘without inner life’?

Mind you, we may not have dog-art but it can’t be argued that, for instance, a dog does not have an ‘inner life’ of sorts. From my own experience I can tell they react increasingly more emotional to reuniting with a ‘master’ in function of longer and longer separation. My dog of 7 years cried like wounded animal, literally rolling around in her own pee seemingly in utter surrender to her own overwhelming feelings, merely because my sister returned from studying 3 months abroad. It’s one of the more hearth wrenching memories I have of my dog, second only to carrying her in my arms to the grave we dug, several years later. I mention the latter because there’s a good chance it might have triggered an emotion in you (like it did in me, even though I’ve had to re-read it more than a dozen times) which is kind of weird since memory is a very physical thing, yet seems the single most important factor in our ‘inner life’ and it can influence it, even if that memory isn’t our own! We cry at movies, don’t we?

The materialist view on consciousness as being contained in the brain seems to me to be entirely consistent with the impressions we get from animals regarding their own ‘inner life’. Smaller brains predict less and less abilities to scrutinise situations, abstract thinking and less and less diversity in emotional response. Yet at no point can we identify a crisp boundary between those ‘animals’ with and those animals without ‘a Soul’ or basic self-consciousness. So at the very least does it appear that the ‘hypothesis’ of theist-dualists, with humans being separated from the animals by having a ‘Soul’, does not match observations particularly too well.

Mind you not only materialists have looked at animals for arguments in favour of their case, so have dualists.

4.1 “What’s it like to be a bat?”

Now at the start of this post I simplified things a little by claiming that in the debate on consciousness there were two sides: the materialists and the dualists. There is actually a third position I did hint at when I said it remained to be seen whether the problem of consciousness would not turn out to be a partial NP-problem: a problem that would forever defy the construction of a reductionist model. In the earlier posts on materialism the strong relation between physicalism and reductionism was already emphasised even if this is not a necessary condition. Briefly stated all immaterial processes are non-reductionist, Caspar-the-Ghost can’t be modelled by a formula because he is not a deterministic cog in a machine. Most physical processes however are reductionist, you can model gravity in a simple formula. Other material processes are also not entirely reductionist. Quantum-uncertain processes such a nuclear decay, lacking complete determinism, can at best be modelled by probability calculations.

The reason why this is mentioned here is Thomas Nagel, atheist and professor in philosophy, who wrote a rather well received paper titled ‘What’s it like to be a bat?’ Now a bat is a very good animal to ask this question of since its dominant sense (sound) substitutes our own (sight), which kind of makes it hard for us to image the answer to the question. I have no idea what’s it like to be a bat and neither do you. The reason this paper is so insightful is because it pushed back a very Newtonian deterministic view of neurology with questions about the fundamental nature of ‘subjectivity’ and ‘experience’.

‘I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.’ Thomas Nagel, New York Times August 18, 2013

Instead of a deterministic consciousness he emphasized the unique perspective that ‘subjectivity’ implied and which would have to be accounted for by any model of consciousness, deterministic or otherwise. From that he concluded that no deterministic reductionist materialist model could both capture the material workings of consciousness while also capturing the unicity of the individual. In this position one can, in hind sight, already detect some traces of Nagel’s future duality, but at the time it was merely seen as a claim that part of consciousness would, like quantum mechanics, be non reductionist, non-deterministic.

‘It would be a mistake to conclude that physicalism must be false. Nothing is proved by the inadequacy of physicalist hypotheses that assume a faulty objective analysis of mind. It would be truer to say that physicalism is a position we cannot understand because we do not at present have any conception of how it might be true.’ Thomas Nagel, New York Times August 18, 2013

According to Nagel an individual’s consciousness would always be partially non-determinable. This was actually a very welcome thesis in Science since it predicted the differences in people’s personalities and why, when computers often suffered from endless loops in code, this was not as much an issue with brains. Complete determinism with respect to consciousness was never something most people would be very comfortable with anyway. So Nagel seemed to give them the philosophical ammunition to bask in blissful ignorance about part of consciousness. Simultaneously Science was fine with partial in-determinability if it didn’t preclude Science from modelling the menial workings of consciousness.

While Nagel here still explicitly sided with materialism he did warn against an overly positivistic attitude towards a ‘theory of mind’. Several years later Nagel took his scepticism regarding reductionism and jumped the fence to where most non-reductionists lived, immaterialism. All of a sudden no-one in the scientific community felt very comfortable for much longer.

4.2 Mind and Cosmos

In 2012 Thomas Nagel published a book titled “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False” which instantly divorced him from the remainder of the mainly naturalistic scientific community. A divorce not prior suggested by his left-leaning politics and outspoken atheism. As it was, Nagel had the credentials to vaporize any potential complacency in the community and force it to address the dissent from within in an earnest manner. Although un-wavered in his godless religious views (presumably based on very different arguments than mine), with ‘Mind and Cosmos’ in one shot Nagel attacked all three pillars with which Science had supported the mainstream secular world-view: Abiogenesis, Evolution and the material basis of human consciousness. The first two he argued, were far too unlikely to have happened by mere accident. (Which, as he should have been familiar with, is a gross simplification).

‘The question is whether large organic molecules might have come to catalyse their own reproduction, or the conditions for their own stability in a prebiotic soup, thereby providing a platform or launch-pad for an RNA world. This is not the question of whether ‘life’ sprang into being spontaneously, and neither is Nagel’s estimate of the vanishingly low probability of a gradualist story particularly authoritative.’

Simon Blackburn -NewStatesMan-

All three critiques flowed from his newly found conviction that a purely physical view of the world was incomplete; in other words ‘there was something “more”‘. For the origin of life, this ‘more’ was a ‘propensity’ in nature that ‘guided’ the otherwise still acceptable workings of both Abiogenesis and Evolution. This ‘propensity’ even though theists aren’t likely to catch this point, was not of an ‘intentional’ nature, as would be the case with a God/Creator.

‘In particular, he claims that the standard scientific picture must be augmented by a non-physical notion of teleology directedness toward a purpose. And not just an emergent notion of purpose that might be compatible with physicalism. Nagel is thinking of something fundamental: “teleology requires that successor states . . . have a significantly higher probability than is entailed by the laws of physics alone.”‘

‘He doesn’t seem to think we need to look beyond the natural world, but we do need to look beyond the laws of physics.’

Sean Caroll 2013

For the ‘Mind’ he tacked from non-determinism and non-reductionism to complete non-physicalism and simply professed a believe that ‘the experience of consciousness’ could not be ‘captured’ by physical Sciences. One of the reasons he thinks this, as indicated by Sean Caroll in his review, is because Nagel doesn’t seem to be able to accept that -the existence of the Laws of Physics- and our very own -ability to understand them-, are themselves not explainable things. That they just ‘are’ because that’s how they ‘are’ (And they just might as well have been different). Materialism doesn’t explain why the world exists at all. Instead of thus accepting ‘Mind’ as a result of the ‘Physical’ Nagel transforms it into something ‘fundamental’, like particles. To Nagel reality is built from the physical parts and from non-physical ‘Mind’ that simultaneously directs the physical and allows us to scrutinize it. The ‘why’-question thus gets answered by the workings of the all-permeating ‘Mind’. It is hard to see how the latter hypothesis could remain long distinguishable from potential redefinitions of ‘God’. Nagel seems to have viewed it as a compromise rather, taking away from both, to bring both the secular and the religious views closer together.

“Mind And Cosmos will certainly lend comfort to the religious enemies of Darwinism”
– John Duprè

But for all his non-reductionism and non-physicalism Nagel seems to have overlooked the fact that, as a proponent of Science, he must now also bear the burden of evidence for an entire immaterial reality. As discussed in the previous posts immateriality entails how something that is independent from the physical and the material still, and arbitrarily so, can have manifest impacts on it. It can ‘choose’ when and where to interact with the physical. Phenomena we have thus far not registered. It is a point excellently pressed home by Sean Caroll:

‘Nagel is correct to have appreciated that once you say “consciousness isn’t merely physical” .., the ramifications for fundamental Science are profound indeed. Except, of course, I want to use this to reach the opposite conclusion: the idea that we need something like a non-material teleological principle, a “propensity” in nature for things to develop a certain way, is so dramatically at odds with what we’ve learned about the world in the time since Galileo that it gives us good reason to deny that consciousness can’t be explained in physical terms.’

‘Imagine what it would entail to truly believe that consciousness is not accounted for by physics. It would entail, among other things, that the behaviour of ordinary matter would occasionally deviate from that expected on the basis of physics alone, even in circumstances where consciousness was not involved in any obvious way.’ …

‘So, at what point does this deviation from purely physical behaviour kick in, exactly? It’s the immortal soul vs. the Dirac equation problem: if you want to claim that what happens in our brain isn’t simply following the laws of physics, you have the duty to explain in exactly what way the electrons in our atoms fail to obey their equations of motion. Is energy conserved in your universe? Is momentum? Is quantum evolution unitary, information-preserving, reversible?’

Sean Caroll (op.cit.)

4.3 Chalmers’ zombies

David Chalmers, of ‘Hard Problem’ fame, has his own reasons for thinking our consciousness is of non-material essence. In his 1996 book ‘The Conscious Mind ‘ Chalmers works on ‘Zombie theories’. Where a zombie is a human that has no conscious experience. This hypothetical-being was invented to both underline how
inscrutable our consciousness is to one-another: I know nothing of what goes on inside you; As well as demonstrate it’s fundamental nature. The reasoning is a little solipsistic in nature since it starts by potentially denying that another person, perhaps even everyone but you, has self-consciousness.

Cartoon of two persons accusing each other of being a 'Zombie'

Since we can’t verify each-others inner-world Chalmers proposes that a person without it would be indistinguishable from those with it. Ergo: our inner-world is not holy dependent on mechanical workings.

Zombie-theorists claim that if only the physical (deterministic) was to be considered non-self-conscious Zombies could still exist, by whose action one wouldn’t be able to detect their lack of an inner life. In other words: if according to materialists we are but robots than ‘having an inner life’ is not an necessary condition of those ‘robots’ and therefore this ‘inner life’ is not of a material nature.

[the zombie-theory syllogism from wikipedia:]

  1. According to physicalism, all that exists in our world (including consciousness) is physical.
  2. Thus, if physicalism is true, a metaphysically possible world in which all physical facts are the same as those of the actual world must
    contain everything that exists in our actual world. In particular, conscious experience must exist in such a possible world.
  3. In fact we can conceive of a world physically indistinguishable from our world but in which there is no consciousness (a zombie world).
    From this (so Chalmers argues) it follows that such a world is metaphysically possible.
  4. Therefore, physicalism is false. (The conclusion follows from 2. and 3. by modus tollens.)

For the amount of literature that has covered this since Chalmers invention of ‘zombies’, one would think this was a seriously hard argument to refute. It is not! Chalmers makes the same mistake as Descartes (Zombies vs. Perfect Being) whereas Descartes’ Perfect Being at least had some sort of self-fulfilling property through which ‘perfectness’ suggested ‘existence’. (Here my breakdown of Decartes’ God-proof.) Chalmers has no such excuse and basically just assumes that since something is conceivable it must exist. Like Chalmers can conceive of zombies I can conceive of unsinkable ships, so can and have other people. Yet the Titanic episode suggests such things must not necessarily exist. Chalmers is like the ‘handy-man’ who has several ‘spare parts’ left after reassembling the car-engine. Because he does not understand them it must mean they are not essential. Because he can’t understand how the mechanics of brain produce an inner life is must mean brains without it must function in identical ways. Additionally does the existence of ‘robots without feelings’ not preclude other robots, who have feelings, from getting those feelings by physical workings. (Here my post on AI and why it may require that irrationality is included to make it work: ‘If our robots weren’t atheists’.)It is not because we also have normal horses without stripes, that the stripes on zebra’s can only be paint!

Other rebuttals of the Zombie-theory have attacked the very core idea: that zombies are even logically conceivable. As Daniel Dennet points out: our inner life has clear effects in our behaviour that would not exist in a zombie. A zombie would not know when and how to imitate ‘fear’, let alone fake it to the point of self-destructive behaviour. You wouldn’t need to put a zombie whose in the ‘imminent room’ of death-row on suicide watch. Zombies, according to Dennet, are logically inconsistent and therefore not even conceivable.

5.0 Immaterial properties of consciousness

Having reviewed the specific non-material views on consciousness from Nagel and Chalmers we turn to two elements that are frequently discussed in ‘theories of Mind’, namely ‘Aboutness’ and ‘Qualia’. Each outline will be followed by a rather well-known, much discussed thought-experiment proposed by dualists, that deals with each element respectively.

5.1 Aboutness

In Buddhist philosophy, intentionality is known as ‘mental designation’, ‘mental imputation’, ‘mental projection’ or ‘mental attribution’. Near synonyms for intentionality are ‘semantics’ and just plain old ‘meaning’. Rational Buddhism

One of the more noticeable properties of our consciousness is that it can have ‘intentionality’ or ‘aboutness’: it can think about things. In a semantic context ‘intentionality’ means ‘the subject’ of a sentence. In neurology ‘aboutness’ both refers to the subject of what one is thinking about as well as the ability itself to be thinking about anything to begin with. It is hard to overestimate how central this concept is to ‘Theories of Mind’ that entire careers have been devoted to it. Most of it written in advanced philosophers language, incomprehensible to laymen. Much of it also surprisingly indifferent to the question whether consciousness is physical or dual in nature, to the point that it becomes impossible to determine from what paradigm the author is starting from.

Some, not all, mental states and events have Intentionality. Beliefs, fears, hopes and desires are Intentional; but there are forms of nervousness, elation and undirected anxiety that are not Intentional….
My beliefs and desires must always be about something. But my nervousness and undirected anxiety need not in that way be about anything. John R. Searle, ‘Intentionality’ 1983 (from “Intentionality as the mark of the mental” Tim Crane)

Dualists often refer to computer-monitors to indicate how truly special human ‘intentionality’ or aboutness really is. Using many tiny amounts of electric current a computer can project an image of a ‘chair’ on the monitor. But while this is trivial the computer doesn’t realise what it’s doing or what, if anything, the pixels on the screen are ‘about’. In a similar manner, so dualists claim, do brains use many tiny electric signals. But if a computer can’t assemble a meaning or an ‘aboutness’ from these currents, why would brains do any better? Clearly the ability to be ‘about’ something, anything, is not emergent from tiny amounts of current at all. Instead, they propose, it is the immaterial part of our consciousness that has the ability to ‘be about’ things and which hands the cognitive functions of the brain the objects about which to reason.

‘Aboutness’ sounds harmless, or even banal. However, it lies at the heart of what it is that sets apart animals with complex consciousnesses from the material world. And the joining together of intentionality drives the widening of the gap between humans and other animals, even our nearest primate kin. Prof. Raymond Tallis 2019

Another thing ‘irking’ the dualist is how mind can have ‘aboutness’ about things that are arbitrarily far away, removed from the mind in Space and Time or may even never have existed at all. How can a brain have material-‘aboutness’ about things that never were material in the first place? For mental ‘events’ to have material properties dualists seem to demand that they have a deterministic ‘relation’ with the physical, even physical properties themselves, lest they be ‘irreducible’ to material things.

‘..the thought that the painting I see is beautiful is about the painting, but this “aboutness” is not reducible to the painting nor to my nervous system. Thus, intentionality, or “aboutness”, is not
part of the physics of the world or my brain chemistry.’Jani Koskela, Jan. 2018
‘It seems obvious that physical properties do not have the same features as mental properties. For example, mental events such as thoughts, feelings of pain and sensory experiences do not contain physical qualities like mass, spatial dimensions and space location, are not composed of chemicals, and do not have electrical properties. ‘Scott Brisbane

It is true that the collection of pixels on a computer monitor have about the same meaning to that computer as a handful of sand would have to us. This is because like that sand, those pixels are just a heap of unrelated and unstructured data to the computer. Ironically, and we will review this more in the next post, if we want to ‘teach’ the computer what this image is about, we have to program it to mimic processes in the human brain. In order to say that the human brain can’t have ‘aboutness’ would, in my view, actually require the denial that it could store any information at all. Because ‘aboutness’ is just a step in the knowledge-ladder from bits -> data -> information -> knowledge -> wisdom. Specifically it is a piece of ‘information’ that derives meaning from a whole network of ‘things that are associated with it’ and ‘things it is not’.

In papers on ‘Intentionality’ a lot is said about the ‘Intentionality relationship’ between our idea-‘chair’ and the actual ‘chair’ and dualists seem to insist on this relationship being ‘objective’ in order for materialism to be true. The ‘chair’ in reality is the material cause of the idea-‘chair’ in the Mind. There is no need for a ‘objective’ relation because no one, least of all historians, claim the idea-‘chair’ is ‘how-it-actually-is’ objectively. It is just the result of our combined subjective senses over prolonged exposure. It is entirely subjective and each of us has a slightly different idea-‘chair’.

The fact that ‘aboutness’ is just information is what allows us to say that a song and a text ‘are about’ something, even if it requires human interpretation to notice this. Information is any arrangement of ‘data’ (which can be stored in pebbles, electrons or just scribbles on paper) that, when fed into a ‘protocol’ can influence system-states. Depending on whether this system is a computer, a computer-network or a human both the ‘data-encoding’ as well as the ‘protocol’ will vary. Humans are able to deal with tremendous amounts of data ‘encoded’ in atoms and ‘read’ these via parallel senses (and internal feedback-) protocols. The efforts to ‘teach’ computers these protocols is on-going. It is a daunting task both in scale, understanding and performance, but no one involved thinks it’s a structurally impossible one. Nowhere does it follow that ‘aboutness’ is necessarily non-physical.

Make no mistake, the human ability to ‘compartmentalise’ reality into objects instead of processing each sensory signal separately has had tremendous evolutionary advantages and is truly impressive. Through magnetoencephalography we can get a high level image of the electrical activity in the brain. This has helped us map out functional area’s of the brain and their association with certain sub-functions of consciousness. No one could tell however, from those images whether you were thinking about a ‘Cow’ or a ‘Chair’. The fact that we can get a series of electrical impulses from out retina; and from this input derive that we are looking at a ‘chair’ is absolutely mind-boggling. Not so much in the sense that it is implausible we should understand this to be a ‘chair’, but rather in the sense of the amount of processing and elimination that must be done to reach the correct solution of ‘chair’. This material processing, by the way, would still be required whether or not ‘aboutness’ was physical or not, since we know quite well that the processing of the visual information is a neurological thing we can detect and partially mimic in computer-simulations. This process will seem orders of magnitude more ‘boggling’ once we revisit, in our next post, how the brain goes about doing this.

Yes the brains ability to reach ‘aboutness’ is impressive, but we also know the brain uses some optimising tricks (not entirely unlike a computer-memory-cache) to speed things up. We know this because sometimes this optimising goes wrong. Specifically we tend to see the things we expect to see; And one of the things we expect most is ‘human faces’, which we see in just about everything. This is why it’s trivial to, for example, see a human-face on a clock even though the hybrid of person-and-clock is not a real thing anyone ever saw. It should be rather harder than this to get ‘aboutness’ for a clock-person since it doesn’t actually exist.

Instantly recognisable image of a non-existent clock-person.

Instantly recognisable image of a non-existent clock-person. It is the reinforcement of the face-recognition in our brains that make it possible to get ‘aboutness’ about this otherwise non-existent subject.

When we grieve, we see our recently-departed in the silhouette of strangers on the street. When we are afraid, every shadow in the dark abandoned forest is a ‘stalking murderer’. When we say ‘ilk’, ‘ilk’, ‘ilk’, ‘ilk’ ,’ilk’ the answer to the question “What do Cows drink?” becomes ‘Milk’, even though the aboutness of ‘What do cows drink?’ is actually ‘water’. The reason our ‘aboutness’ fails is not because we have ‘faulty Minds’ but because brains are an associative network in which those pathways, that are used more, get reinforced and become more sensitive to being ‘triggered’. That’s how associations work. Faces, grief, danger and ‘ilk’ all represent either latent or temporarily reinforced pathways in our brain.

It would also be interesting to hear how dualists explain hallucinogens, chemical compounds in drugs, that predictably trigger lots of ‘aboutness’ in our ‘consciousness’ concerning things that are not there or do not even exist. Since they are of the conviction that only our electrical- sensory- input of ‘hearing’, ‘seeing’ and feeling are actually physical, while the ‘conceptualising’ happens in a non-physical ‘Mind’; Are they than saying that the material chemicals in the drugs somehow stimulate our senses to ‘by random chance’ (because our senses don’t have built-in memory) produce the signals for ‘a chair’, when no chair is actually visible? Would this be a more plausible explanation than that the chemicals just trigger signals that follow pre-made brain-pathways, through nearly identical chain-reactions, in the brain’s associative network (which by its existence is a form of memory)? Meaning that, what you are hallucinating, is basically a quasi-random recombination of memory with associations, rather than new erroneous input. But then this would predict that on EEG’s we’d see similar brain-activity whether we are experiencing something or just remembering it, is it not? Indeed this is exactly what we see, almost as if Evolution reused the same hardware to do the almost identical activity twice, for two distinct survival functionalities.

Mindmap on brain organisation
The idea behind mind-mapping in studying was to enforce memorisation by mimicking the way brains’ associative network ‘captures’ information.

Now if ‘aboutness’ is just information and the difference between a computer and a human is just the ‘protocol’, why is it that ‘chair’ does not have the same ‘meaning’ or even any meaning to a computer as it does to us? The difference in meaning is entirely the result of the difference in protocol. Humans ‘think’ in a decentralized associative way. ‘Chair’ potentially has connections to nouns as ‘wood’, ‘metal’, ‘house’, ‘home’ as well as ‘pain’ and ‘relieve’; to adjectives as ‘hard’, ‘soft’, ‘comfortable’; and to verbs as ‘sitting’, ‘standing’ and so forth.. In fact ‘chair’ is not stored as a thing in the brain at all, it is just the sum of the connections ‘chair’-input, be it from the senses or from other pathways, triggers. To a human ‘chair’ has an overloaded meaning whereas a computer can only store and retrieve a binary representation for it that is detached from everything else and, as such, doesn’t mean anything at all. To demonstrate this idea think about the social game where a person is challenged to explain a concept to the group without using a list of words. How would you make a person guess the word ‘ball’ if you weren’t allowed to use ’round’, ‘sphere’ or any name of a common sport?

5.2 Experiment in Aboutness: ‘The Chinese Room Experiment’

In an attempt to demonstrate that it was impossible for a computer, and by extension a material consciousness, to gather true ‘meaning’ and understanding John Searle, a U.C. Berkeley philosopher, proposed in the ’80’s The Chinese Room Experiment. During the following decades the scenario was revised several times, often as a response to criticism, then again to expand its conclusions to incorporate human consciousness.

Some might say that it would take a lifetime to study all that was written about the ‘Chinese Room Argument’. This is not true. One lifetime would simply not suffice. Just taking a fraction of the works and papers I didn’t study in preparing for this would make me seem terribly unprepared:

  • Copeland, J., 2002, ‘The Chinese Room from a Logical Point of View’
  • Ford, J., 2010, ‘Helen Keller was never in a Chinese Room’
  • Harnad, S., 1989, ‘Minds, Machines and Searle’
  • Hofstadter, D., 1981, ‘Reflections on Searle’
  • Nute, D., 2011, ‘A Logical Hole the Chinese Room Avoids’
  • Penrose, R., 2002, ‘Consciousness, Computation, and the Chinese Room’

Except of course for all those I did study. ☹

Cartoon image of the Chinese Room Experiment

Cartoon image of the Chinese Room Experiment in which the person in the room gets incomprehensible input and produces output according to a set of fixed rules.

“Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.

The point of the argument is this: if the man in the room does not understand Chinese on the basis of implementing the appropriate program for understanding Chinese then neither does any other digital computer solely on that basis because no computer, qua computer, has anything the man does not have.

..the implementation of the computer program is not by itself sufficient for consciousness or intentionality. Computation is defined purely formally or syntactically, whereas minds have actual mental or semantic contents, and we cannot get from syntactical to the semantic just by having the syntactical operations and nothing else. .. A system, me, for example, would not acquire an understanding of Chinese just by going through the steps of a computer program that simulated the behaviour of a Chinese speaker.”

Searle ‘The Chinese Room’ 1999,
in R.A. Wilson and F. Keil (eds.), The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Now in order to unpack this it must be clear that Searle’s argument began as a rebuttal to Artificial Intelligence and was designed as to mimic a common computer based on the technology that was available at the time. The argument’s main focus is to show how a Turing Machine, a computer capable of applying any mathematically logical algorithm, would not suffice to gather ‘aboutness’ or ‘intentionality’. Only in a second phase was it understood that this could be interpreted to mean that ‘aboutness’ wasn’t found in the material, physical part of the mind. Leading to the conclusion that consciousness had to be, at least partially, immaterial in nature.

Now over the course of decades more people have disagreed with the argument than have supported it, but those that disagreed with it also tended to disagree, to a lesser degree, with each other on why this was so. Some thought the man in the room would learn Chinese anyway. Others thought the man didn’t learn Chinese but that he was just part of a greater system that did learn it. Still others conceded no Chinese was learned but that ‘the system’ still gathered ‘meaning’ in a broader sense. With the advantage of looking back over a quarter century evolution in IT and AI and spending more than a decade in information technology I don’t agree with any of them.

Let us begin by saying that such a program..

  • that could take an arbitrary input of symbols
  • apply imperative instructions on how to create other undetermined strings of symbols
  • in such a way that to a native speaker, to whom these symbols were actual language, they formed a logical reply..

That is one massively impressive program for any imperative programming language to make!!

I am being facetious off course, because to foresee ‘instructions’ on how to respond to an infinite amount of different but distinct scenarios would require an infinite amount of instructions. Our Chinese Room however, is a limited system. So I disagree with the premise that such a system would be able to pass a Turing Test. The reason it’s not able to is because it has no real understanding of what is going on so it can’t “write its own responces” or “rewrite its own instructions”. Even in the 80’s no one really thought they would beat a Turing Test with a finite amount of instructions, they were merely seeing how far such a system would be able to take it. All hopes of building Artificial Intelligence by giving it instructions on how to deal with an infinite amount of situations were quickly abandoned. So the argument is a bit of a Straw-Man as well.

Joke about human failing a Turing test
Increasingly stale joke about human failing a Turing test.
The Turing test is one where a human observer can’t tell whether he is chatting with an advanced algoritm or with a real person. A Turing machine on the other hand is a mathematical model of any machine that can implement any possible algoritm.

But let us assume for the argument that this ‘machine’ was indeed able to beat a Turing Test, and instead focus on the person inside. Because the point of the argument is to demonstrate that the man doesn’t ‘extract’ meaning from the combination of input and program-rules; and I largely agree that he doesn’t. The man does learn the program ‘rules’ and any patterns within. As to the meaning of the Chinese symbols though, the man doesn’t learn what they ‘mean’ or what is referenced by them. He doesn’t know which are positive or ‘good’ things and which are ‘bad’.

Now what the argument is trying to convey is that the man inside the room is a fully functional consciousness who, unlike a computer, has all the tools to get ‘understanding’. And so, Searl implies:, ‘even though I give the man all the physical information’ (he doesn’t) ‘and all the tools needed to beat a Turing Test’ (he doesn’t) ‘it seems that ‘intentionality’ is not within the combination of input and rules even if they are sufficient to pass a Turing Test’ (They’re not). ‘Therefore ‘meaning’ must have a non-physical component that is out of the grasps of the material realm.’

The first mistake Searl makes is by expecting an immutable system to generate an unlimited amount of replies. So if we’d ask that system (in Chinese) to summarize Quantum Mechanics it should be able to produce the appropriate output if it contains rules for that. Meanwhile a Chinese farmer might not be able to answer that question. If the Chinese Room instead replied with ‘I don’t know’ that answer would remain that way forever. Our Chinese farmer however might have learned a thing or two in the time between and have a different answer the second time. Consciousness is not an immutable system and any immutable Chinese Room will inevitably fall out of ‘sync’ with the Chinese language evolving itself. Even if it was beating the Turing Test once, it would not continue to do so forever.

‘Intentionality plays a much more fundamental role in Buddhism that [sic] it does in traditional Western philosophy. Intentionality, in its role as ‘mental designation’ is, together with causality and structure, one of the three axiomatic foundations of all phenomena, and is not reducible to the other two. Johan Searle argued for this position with the Chinese room thought experiment, according to which no syntactic operations that occurred in a computer would provide it with semantic content.’ Rational Buddhism

With regard to the claims concerning ‘intentionality’, ‘aboutness’ and a broader sense of understanding, Searl’s second mistake is much more significant. Searl misses something which Thomas Nagel fundamentally understood: that consciousness is shaped by the nature and the diversity of the input signals. This is why it’s something else to be a bat then to be us, and something else still to be a Chinese Room. A bat has another ‘experience’ surrounding ‘a tree’ than we do. We take in the tree visually and we can touch it, smell it. For a bat a tree can also be seen somewhat, but for the most part it’s something he ‘hears’, he can live in it, he can feel his stomach ease when the tree feeds him. Neither the bat nor we have a complete objective picture of the tree. None of us can see it in infrared. None of us can detect the way its mass warps ‘space-time’ slightly. None of us can see the fluid dynamics that go on inside. But from interconnecting our own specific senses and observing the consequences of our decisions surrounding the tree (like punching it) both the bat and we gather a ‘meaning’ for the tree. Now what other input channel does the Chinese Room have to link to the Chinese symbol for ‘tree’? It has none. Trying to obtain ‘meaning’ from within the Chinese Room is like trying to triagulate a cell-phone using only one antenna.

Getting ‘meaning’ or understanding is the thing we do when we put information into a broader collection of related things (with clear consequences) or link it to distant information where from to distil other consequences still. The Chinese Room Experiment is set up in such a way as to preclude understanding. It shows the most rudimentary of knowledge systems and suggests that our understanding comes from evaluating a set of rules from a single source. This is absolutely inadequate. Expecting the person in the Chinese Room Experiment to understand Chinese is like expecting a blind person to understand the meaning of ‘blue’. Since the blind person cannot connect the semantic concept to visual information he can only apply ‘blue’ following the rules, he will never write new rules himself and thus never discover the concept of ‘light blue’ and ‘dark blue’ unless this is given to him directly. A blind person, in a way is thus a limited type of Chinese Room in and of himself. Not obtaining the same ‘understanding’ of ‘blue’ as seeing persons. To blame the program in the Chinese Room for not providing insight into Chinese is like blaming the consciousness of a blind person for not getting the full meaning of colours.

Additionally, by employing the Chinese Room Experiment and denying that room the potential for ‘understanding’ (and thus consciousness), Searle must either claim that blind people aren’t conscious or that the understanding of ‘blue’ specifically is situated in a material part of consciousness. Because if he admits that the blind person is conscious (as we would hope) how else would he explain that a blind person actually has less understanding of colour than a computer has. In fact, other than to mimic computer hardware and input-output-modes, once we apply the argument on humans consciousness, why have walls at all? Isn’t every Chinese Baby a ‘Chinese Room’ except with all the windows open and all sorts of channels (to allow information in) applying what it finds to a rewritable rule-book? Can the experiment be rewritten in such a way that the person in the Chinese Room has the same input channels and the same opportunities to make associations between them, as a Chinese Child has, yet still reach the same conclusion: that the person never learns Chinese? Obviously one can’t.

The Chinese Room is basically a big smel-less, blind and tough-insensitive Chinese baby that only has auditory input. In reality such a baby will not learn Chinese either: no matter how many times you repeat ‘this is blue’ or ‘this is hot’ or ‘kaka is smelly’ it can’t see the ‘blue’, feel the heat or smell the poo. It can’t learn the meaning of ‘this’ or understand that the verb ‘to be’ links to ostensible presence in space and time or a state of being. We should expect a severely diminished type of consciousness from its lack of understanding regarding the world. Even when given back all sensory-input later in life we’d expect this person to only model the world in pitch and amplitude, respond only to the sound of cutlery (associated with being fed) and react very confused to any input of a different nature.

Ok, but a dog is kind of a Chinese Room with all these input signals going in, why don’t dogs learn Chinese then, if not for a lack of Soul? Well ‘why’ indeed? Because the same reasoning applies whether ‘meaning’ is a physical thing or not. So if you believe the understanding which a dog has about his environment is in the non-physical ‘Mind’, why do Chinese dogs not learn Chinese? The spiritualist would say a dog does not have a soul, so he can’t learn Chinese. The materialist answer would be that the size of brains is a limiting factor for the amount of interconnections concepts can have. There is less room for more subtle connections, less room for nuance. This fits reasonably well with observations: As far as we can detect a dog will have ennough understanding of Chinese to understand he is being talked about, to discern ‘compliments’ from ‘punishment’ and even to grasp he is being asked if he is a good boy? and if he wants a cookie? (the output to both incidentally, judging by his tail, is always “yes”).

I have no idea what’s it like to be a bat, or a dog for that matter. But I do know that it is determined by the nature of their input signals and the size of the physical associative network these signals get send to. While an artificial intelligence using first order logic and direct instructions does not possess the potential for understanding; a Turing Machine overlaid with a brain-imitating logic, given the scalability both in size and input diversity, has (pragmatically issues aside) the potential for a more vast and detailed conscious understanding of anything than human brains poses. Today this is no longer a purely theoretical claim as we use genetic algoritms to make sense of situations humans can’t grasp. And so, even with respect to Artificial Intelligence, has the Chinese Room argument spectacularly failed.

5.3 Qualia

The second most quoted property of immaterial consciousness are qualia. Where ‘aboutness’ was the ability to group a bunch of information collections to a associative web ‘about’ an objective reality, qualia are the full scale subjective experience of any situation. Qualia are qualitative states such as the redness of red, aesthetic experiences of beauty and the experiences of revulsion, pain, happiness, boredom, depression, elation, motivation, intention. Even though this seems a pretty clear and well-defined thing, it really isn’t.

Cartoon illustrating the different 'experience' each person has of the same colour and a 'zombie' having none.
Cartoon illustrating the different ‘experience’ each person has of the same colour and a ‘zombie’ having none.

Different proponents of the existence of qualia would disagree to various degrees with my assertion that qualia are still fundamentally ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’, yet emerges on a higher abstraction level, like a plot in a movie. To some qualia are as immaterial as they propose ‘souls’ to be. To them even ‘souls’ can merely sample the qualia, they cannot contain them; the can just connect to them in ways that material brains have no access to. To prove this existence of such an information-independent knowledge-ether another closed room thought-experiment was devised. Enter Mary’s Room.

5.4 Experiment in Qualia: ‘Mary’s Room’

The most famous article involving qualia and arguing against physicalism or a materialistic theory of mind, was written in 1982 by Professor Frank Jackson, ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’. In it Frank formulates the intuition underlying his Knowledge Argument in a much cited passage using his famous example of the neurophysiologist Mary:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’.

What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.
The argument contained in this passage may be put like this:

  1. Mary has all the physical information concerning human color vision before her release.
  2. But there is some information about human color vision that she does not have before her release.
  3. Therefore:

  4. Not all information is physical information.

As Mary has all information on the wavelengths which ‘red tomatoes’ reflect, the only information she learns upon leaving the room is how her particular light-sensitive cones will produce electrical signals from the incoming light. She could have calculated the effects on a perfect light sensor but she was deprived of this information with respect to her own light-sensors and brain. The premise is therefore wrong: she did not possess all physical information.

The reasoning is flawed because we’d have the same situation with respect to infrared light: the fact that we ‘learn something’ new upon using an IR-sensor doesn’t mean this information is not physical. By feeding Mary only grey-scale images Jackson has literally changed the wave-length of the information Mary is given, yet he denies having deprived her of any physical information. Both the Chinese Room and Mary’s Room use the principle of blocking input, pretending to pass it through in another form, demonstrating that still not al information is contained within the room and then concluding that certain parts of the input are clearly non-physical. In the case of Mary’s Room it is a specific string of physical data that is withheld. In the case of the Chinese Room it is all the intertextual information and multi-sensory context that allows one to connect several pieces of information and understand them in function of each other.

Some say that it is not the sensation of ‘redness’ that Mary is receiving and Science can’t explain, it’s the feeling she gets on first seeing this ‘redness’. In that case I have argued beside the real point and the ‘new information’ is actually a feeling unique to Mary. As we proposed earlier that feelings are in fact thoughts and thus exist as part of a process in the brain it is true that we can’t predict, replicate or transplant these. This is not because they are a-physical or because they are necessarily based in non-determinism, this just results from the brain being a higher-order non-linear system where the outcomes are partially co-determined by small initial conditions. Like nuclear decay it may be that Mary’s feelings are quite unique and can only be approached via probability, it does not deny the fact that they are still very much physical indeed.

In other words, to charge Science with failure of ‘explaining’ first person experience, when one really means the feeling resulting from, not the mechanism that allows, such experiences, it so make a category mistake. I just don’t get it, one more on mary..

Many of his ‘qualia-fans’ ignored it when Frank Jackson did what Nagel did, but in the opposite direction, and ended up pledging his allegiance to physicalism.

“What Science tells us about the mind points strongly toward some version or other of physicalism. The intuitions, in one way or another, suggest that there is something seriously incomplete about any purely physical story about the mind.

… Most contemporary philosophers, when given a choice between going with Science and going with intuitions, go with Science. Although I once dissented from the majority, I have capitulated and now see the interesting issue as being where the arguments from the intuitions against physicalism ‘the arguments that seem so compelling’ go wrong.’

For some time, I have thought that the case for physicalism is sufficiently strong that we can be confident that the arguments from the intuitions go wrong somewhere ‘but where is somewhere?’

6. why consciousness is material

Spiritualists or dualists have profited greatly from this all too common sensation of our minds being able to look at our bodies, identify with it as something it belongs to, yet also kind of distance itself from it as though it had an independent charter of existence. This sensation is the main driving force for religion and the common denominator for all the death-transitioning mythology that religions keep central. We are so used to this shared experience that in discussions it is often materialism that is on the defensive; in search of a complete material description of consciousness, lest it lose the right to question dualism all together.

But dualists have been having an easy ride during which no-one has truly challenged them to define the parts and functions of ‘the soul’ so we’d know, just what it is that ‘goes to heaven’ when we die. It is strange how -on the defensive- materialism has been, considering, when we take this functional view, how quickly the internal consistency of dualism comes apart at the seams.

6.1 Impacted mental functions

It is all well and good to call the part of us that is able to take a dispassionate view of our own bodies as ‘our soul’, but in doing this distant contemplation, it is clearly showing signs of cognitive functionality. Yet it is strange to find these cognitive abilities in the supposed immaterial seat of our Self, because of how easy they are affected and reduced by purely physical things. Dehydration, sensory overload, stress, concussion, sleep deprivation, alcohol and myriad examples of both legal and illegal drugs can alter or diminish how we think rationally.

This effect is not purely a disruption of the communication between the soul and body, it is not like a bad cell-phone reception where information just takes some time to get there, it is actual skewed thinking, where the phone conversation can be very clear but the information conveyed altered and full of faults. We tend to shift priorities, underestimate risk and just plain overlook facts when so affected. If the soul thus has cognitive abilities, it is strange it is directly and inadvertently being affected by ‘the material realm’ when the relation between ‘the immaterial’ and ‘the material’ is typically thought-off as equally one-directional, but strictly in the other direction! It is normally not the wall that decides if a ghost is allowed to pass through it.

Those of us who have had the misfortune, like me, to have experienced higher than normal or more prolonged bouts of fever can testify to what this does. How it takes but a few degrees difference for reality to become radically changed. For the input of different senses to drift away from each other such that one feels movements, where his eyes tell him there is none; and where the sound of people he sees near goes away into the distance. Not that the eyes are really to be trusted as, at such moments, not all things observed are actually there. I’ve seen a bacterial meningitis induce utter disorientation, loss of recognition, a loss of identity and a complete loss of memory; and a lot of these symptoms (temporarily) lifted by common non-opiod pain-killers.

Others, again like myself, who suffer from migraines, can testify to another form of reality-alteration. One in which there’s punishment for surpassing a very low threshold of physical and mental activity. A pain, so all consuming, that for the person experiencing it the world does not extend beyond the boundaries of that pain; in which all the mental capacity is aimed at managing and timing the punishement for breathing.

However, if our memories, personality and cognitive orientation in time and space are part of the soul, it is quite unimaginable they can be completely overturned by such physical effects. Effects that are arguably still orders of magnitude less impactful than our deaths, to which the soul is actually supposed to be immune to. Alternatively all these things are not part of the immaterial self, but very much a part of our physical brain, which evokes the question; what if anything is then still part of ‘the soul‘ and is there still enough ‘in there’ to call it ‘us‘, such that we can still be said to live on after death? Spiritualists have deliberately kept the contents of the soul very vague, lest its inconsistency as a theory would become obvious. Looking at which mental functions are subject to quite mundane physical effects, I would argue there is nothing ‘inside’ a soul at all.

6.2 Learning from unconsciousness

With all the mystery surrounding human consciousness, the awareness and the ‘inner monologue’ it produces, one of the most obvious facts is very often ignored: namely that lots of the time it simply isn’t there. Either because we are sleeping, sedated, unconscious or in a coma. Obviously I’m not saying that all brain activity is stopped in these cases. I’m simply referring to the self-awareness and the general awareness being absent. Incidently, for the last two cases (unconsciousness and coma), the condition is practically defined solely by the absence of this consciousness and the difference between them (apart from some difference in electrical signature) seemingly determined only by an arbitrary notion of duration. This is significant as it’s a condition defined by the very element which’ absence, as Chalmers argued could conceiveably have no noticeable effects. And yet, effect it has, to the point of having serious conditions named after it!

Surely there will be those that claim that the fact that occasionally we remember some dreams proves that consciousness isn’t really gone while we sleep, but they are mistaking brain-activity for awareness. The simple fact is that for large parts of these times we are unaware of even the passage of time, which would not logically be the case if only the physical senses were on non-active, while the center of intentionality, experience, feelings and qualia-interaction remained ‘up’. When coming back to awareness the passage of time is such that it very much feels like we just exited a time-machine. Yet we are so accustomed to this that we don’t appreciate how mind-blowing this actually is.

So if, for the sake of argument, we are to incorporate the maximum of our mental processes to the soul instead of the brain, in order for them to keep on existing after our death, it is very very strange this entails that also our ‘soul’ seems to require sleep as well. Why do ‘souls’ get tired? We know that certain hormones get triggered during our sleep and that the body does cell-regeneration; while brain-activity and dreams suggest both a period of low activity and possibly some maintenance is also being done to the brain. What possible benefit could an immaterial object have from ‘rest’ when it is not subjected to the laws of physics in the first place?

Likewise we are not surprised when a computer drops from the 4th floor that its electrical system is either reset or even permanently damaged. Or for the equivalent in the brain, being a push or a strike, causing either unconsciousness or death. But why would a punch to the head cause a ‘soul’, which can transcend reality, to reset or permanently relocate to heaven? If our consciousness is bound to an immaterial soul this behaviour is odd.

So maybe these composing functionalities of consciousness should not be associated with the soul at all. Again we must ask, what if anything is then still left, to go on for all eternity? What exactly is the immaterial part spiritualists have identified as the core to ourselves?

Perhaps one of the better indications that consciousness is not a duality at all is the fact that our transition from conscious to unconscious often occurs unnoticed by ourselves. The reason the army likes to put two sentries in a fox-hole is because they can alert eachother if the other is falling asleep. Yet we all have awoken with the lights still on and our book where gravity put it, because we fell asleep without realising it. Our cars now come installed with sensors that alert the driver as he is experiencing ‘micro-sleep’. If our ‘Self’ is a duality, how come both parts transition to unconsciousness so nicely synchronised when our lives often depend on keeping conscious? Why is there even afterwards no recollection of the moment consciousness was slipping away? Surely either brain or soul was first to slip into a lower state of activity and surely the other should have reacted to this loss in collaboration?

6.3 The blind movie-maker

As materialists we must hold the position that whatever consciousness is, it must be an emerging phenomenon from the activity of the brain. In the beginning we used the example of rapid successions of images forming a movie with subsequent properties as plot, subject and main characters. This is basically also the position of Daniel Dennet, the renowned philosopher, in his book ‘Consciousness Explained’. -Spoiler alert: consciousness is not fundamentally explained!- The conclusions of this book got severely summarized by its detractors to: ‘consciousness is an illusion’. To which they then retorted with amused disdain, ‘well if it is an illusion, then to whom is it being an illusion to?’ It’s the same question we asked earlier; if consciousness is like a movie, who’s watching it? The answer is that no-one is. Nor is the illusion being ‘illusioned’ to anyone. Dennet never even called it an illusion like that.

‘Well if nobody is watching the movie, how can you explain that we can self-reflect, that we can be aware of our own consciousness and ourselves? If this is not the soul observing the brain and the body what is it then? Because movies sure can’t watch themselves.’

Image demonstrating a camera feedback loop
Image demonstrating a camera feedback loop

Well if we aim a camera to the television, where its direct footage was being displayed on, we get an infinite regression of televisions being displayed. Does this mean we now have infinitely many televisions? No it doesn’t.There is only one television and the others are just representations of that television with an infinite regression of representation within representation. It is only the original television that is doing the representing and it is not actually infinite, it stops when the last representation is only a pixel tall. Any knowledge system can have self-referencing representations, like a movie can show a part of ‘the making off’ itself at the end. But they are only representations.

Self-referencing Computer Icon on windows

Self-referencing Computer Icon on windows

When you click in Microsoft Windows on the ‘My Computer’ symbol you don’t expect to get an image of yourself sitting behind that same computer, nor for ‘My Computer’ to be able to give you detailed knowledge about the electrons that are moving over it’s own data-bus. You get a basic self-referencing representation of the computer and low-level access to its file-system. When we think about ourselves and have sensations of ‘self-awareness’ these are just shallow representations which our ‘movie’ makes about itself, just like any other knowledge-system can. Consciousness itself is not an illusion but it can be the platform on which illusions of self-awareness play.

6.4 The non-linear mind

Perhaps a lot of the arguments against mind-physicalism have not so much been motivated by a belief in an immortal soul, although a large part undoubtedly has been, but also by a strong adherence to free-will. Although this is the subject of a future post I can suffice here to say that materialism is not nescesarily the enemy of free-will. It would be naive in the extreme to think every idea in our head was somehow predetermined from birth, just because our minds are exclusively mechanical. Even in a purely deterministic system like the weather, a non-linear system mind you, the sensitivity to initial conditions is such that beyond a week any prediction is indistinguishable from random. I would think the brain, even if it was fully deterministic (which I don’t quite think it is), would function much the same, except that its prediction-horizon would be much much smaller. And while to some free-will advocates this inability is a relief, since it allows for a notion of indeterminability within a physical minds, other dualists take this indeterminability to mean some part of the mind simply eludes physics.

There seems to be confusion between reality, or parts of reality with their fundamental groundedness in materialism and our ability to make a simple strongly reduced model of that part of reality. This is aggravated by a confusion between modeling the relation between cause and effect and modeling the sum of the actual effects. While planets circling stars are clearly modeled by Newton’s law of gravity, there is a horizon of interaction and integration of effects that prevent us even from modeling the solar system arbitrarily far into the future. This inability does not falsify Newton’s law.

We have been extremely lucky to have been able to model much of the physical world in a handful of laws and formulas. In this respect physics has been extremely rife with symmetry and repetition. However, as much of reality is a non-linear system, despite rampant determinism, it is simply impossible to model all the consequences of those laws. There is no simple deterministic model that will tell you the end-position of every grain of sand in a sand-storm. The inability to do this does not suggest that sand-storms are infused with ‘ghosts’ or ‘cosmic energy’ that interact with it. It not does mean there is something it is like ‘to be a sandstorm’. There simply is no unwritten obligation that every model must be reductionistic. We operate entire nuclear power plants without a single clue about which atoms will split in what order, for example. In reality it may often take a simulator as big as reality to determine the actual positions of every grain of sand. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle further dictates that if we rewind reality and run the simulation again, the outcome must be different for otherwise we’d be able to get a combined uncertainty about particle speed and position that was smaller than the Planck-uncertainty. Undeterminability does not place their nature or movements outside the domain of naturalistic cause and effect.

While there may be more grains of sand in a sand-storm than neurons inside a bat (who knows, really), I will concede that there is something it is like to be a bat. However, this subjectivity founded in a bat’s limited sense of self-awareness, is no less a dynamically constructed illusion such that both the ‘self’ and the feeling of ‘awareness’ are actually constructions. Constructions that are as much informed by past sensatory impulses as current ones and only exist, temporarily, within a flux of electricity as is currently running through the bat’s brain. Science’ inability to map sand-storms and bat-brains does not suggest either has non-material properties but rather reflects Science’ limited mission to find causes for consequences not to predict all consequences indefinetely into the future.

6.5 Heisenberg’s brain

This does not deny that a subjective reality of what it is like to be a bat isn’t part of reality. It exists! But even to the bat it is impossible to know what it is like to be a bat, as he is unable to contemplate this proposition without altering what it meant to be a bat only moments before. Just like a computer can’t observe its own databus can’t a bat both experience things as well as observe those experiences being felt.

You can’t make a list of all the lists in the world with an even number of elements when the number of ‘even-numbered-lists’ is by coincidence itself an even number. Not without running into the paradox of whether this list must also contain itself. As Bertrand Russel so proved to the unfortunate Gottlob Frege: Self-referencing knowledge-systems inevitably lead to infinities and paradoxes. It is not a problem brains actually encounter however, for when we reference ourselves, we simply have no idea what we are talking about and we just compose a lesser something representing our consciousness within our consciousness. And so does the bat.

In a way, therefore, you could say there is an immaterial soul of sorts, just like there is an immaterial ‘plot’ to the movie. But neither are an independent ‘essence’ and when the music stops, they cease to exist. Like souls, the ocean-waves can’t leap from the water either. Our souls are just the woosing sound produced by the windmills of our minds.

Image of a wave

7. Conclusion

Dualists have provided us with plenty of thought experiments and hypothetical creatures to support an intuitive notion regarding ourselves; a notion that itself does not stand up to much scrutiny. While some of these arguments were themselves cleverly designed and some of the discussions so prolonged that the jargon has since long retreated into obscurity; Still, while based on the same faulty premises, fundamental holes could be found in all of them.

It did not help their case that, unlike materialists, dualist could not rely on a solid foundation in the remainder of physics. Instead of therefore putting forward what exactly their mind-model consisted off from an immaterial and non-physical viewpoint, they were from the start restricted to simply try poking holes in the brain-hypothesis of materialists. A good example would have been if they’d been able to show cases of out-of-body experiences where souls obtained verifiable information that would not have been available to it while inside the body. It would only have taken a single reproducable experiment to make the entire material monism lose its monopoly on reason. Sadly for them the human-mind did not prove to be that example.

We started this post by saying that this discussion could be seen as one between two potential falacies, the dualist argument of incredulity against the physicalists argument from ignorance. Short of a full description of material consciousness I think I’ve provide sufficient circumstantial evidence to say the materialists position regarding the brain is not based on ignorance but on consistent proof. Still I think we can do more to combat the incredulity surrounding the astonishing things the brain is supposed to do, all while undesigned and seemingly without much differentiation in its morphology. Turning this disbelieve into a more intuitive understanding of how the brain does what it does will be the subject of the next post. Because unless we get these notions more widespread, will the Ghosts of immaterialism keep coming back, followed closely by the Angles Of Darkness.

Live Long and Prosper


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