Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A brave commenter, "froclown," challenges me on physicalism and the brain:

If the information in your inner world is so private and unavailable to the public, not to mention as you say it's fundamentally non-physical, then how come it is possible to physically connect electrodes into your brain, and by use of a complex decoding program performed by a physical computer, the images in your mind's eye can be broadcast on a physical computer monitor for all to see?

How come NASA has had success with a program to decode and transmit spoken words from the brain of individual who have only thought the worlds, not yet spoken them?

And other such direct brain-computer interfaces. We know computers are physical, if the brain is not, then how can the two grok via a purely physical interface?

OK, first, the brain is physical; it's the mind which is non-physical, or rather, not reducible to the physical. What I am denying is not that the mind has any physical aspect, but the supervenience of the mind on the brain.

To understand this, it's critical to take note of the human tendency to use the physical world as an aid to our own thoughts. If we're calculating a difficult sum, we might use a piece of scratch-paper as an aid. People sometimes talk to themselves out loud when they're excited about something or are grappling with a vexing question. (I do, anyway. It's said to be a sign of insanity, but that's just the voice of envy from people who don't have anything interesting to talk to themselves about.) People keep diaries, sometimes to remember the past, sometimes just to record the way they feel and straighten out their own thoughts.

It's not surprising, therefore, that the mind often jots down its thoughts in the neurons of the brain, where they can sometimes be observed by NASA, or wired into a computer interface. That you can learn something about my thoughts by putting electronic sensors is parallel to you being able to learn something about my thoughts by reading my diary. In either case, my mind is using the physical world as an aid to its own thinking, and creating thought-traces which allow my thoughts to be partially observed by outsiders.

It does not follow that every thought is mapped onto the physical world, or that there is anything in the physical world correpsonding to all the aspects of the mind, or that my subjective experiences are not fundamentally private (even if some imperfect communication between minds, intentional or unintentional, occurs).


  • Interestingly, Dennett says personhood is real yet incompletely reducible - certainly not all the way to the physical. See his paper "Real Patterns", which is reprinted in Brainstorms regarding the ontology of real, irreducible things like persons (and sanctity, perhaps?).

    One of the reasons why I love Dennett so much is that he points a way out of so many apparently insoluble confusions caused by hardening categories so as to create spurious oppositions.

    By Blogger Nato, at 12:46 PM  

  • I just don't see why this confusion exists. The physical world is the only world that their is. The only difference between the objective and the subjective is one of perspective.

    what is called Qualia or soul, etc is just the perspective of the body as it's various systems interact one against the other to a physical stimulation. When a third party observes the those systems and how they interact his body-nervous system is not effected in the same way as the first person perspective is.

    Thus, the feeling of pain is simply the first person perspective of the bio-chemical events observed by the third person. (science in an attempt to remove errors of first person perspective as well as to control variables such as to make an observed effect reproducible, always seeks a third person perspective)

    Think of it this way, when you are in your house waling around, looking at your nick-nack, reading your books, feeling the carpet on your feet, it's not the same experience as looking in through the window, or removing the roof and taking a bird's eye view of the inside of the house, nor is it the same experience as looking at a map of the house.

    Anyway, each of those different perspectives represent the same house, the same nick-nacks the same books, the same carpet. (The map is an abstraction, but technically every perspective is an abstraction, because it's a model created in the brain, the mind's eye. Thus just as we can make hundreds of different sketches, diagrams, maps, photos of the house, and yet each one of these abstractions represents the same physical house.

    So to can we observe reality in the first person, the third person, the physicist, the creationist, the buddhist, or the damn fool perspective and each one will reveal some truths and cover up some truths, about the nature of the actual physical reality itself.

    The problem is that no one model reveals all the truth, every model conceals as much as it reveals, and contrary truths exist in different models.

    The point of science however is to seek a third person perspective, in order to build a model that is practical in diagnostic and reproducing effects. Science is not concerned with the truths of aesthetic beauty, of spiritual feelings, or of social well being.

    These other truths, are elements of other perspective models, such as religion, art, and psychology.

    Science as a paradigm is in fact often hostile towards these other types of truths, these other paradigms, the dynamics of which we can understand if we adopt Richard Dawkin's memetic paradism.

    By Anonymous froclown, at 2:20 PM  

  • Froclown begins by asserting the physicalist dogma: "The physical world is the only world that there is."

    Yet no evidence or argument is offered in its favor.

    On the contrary, he immediately goes on to introduce an entity which would seem to be inconsistent with the physicalist worldview: perspectives.

    What is a "perspective?" Do you see it in the periodical table? What is its chemical composition? Of course I believe there are perspectives, but that belief has nothing to do with any physical evidence: it is the foundational intuition, prior to the recognition of patterns in sense-data that leads me to postulate a physical world, that "I think therefore I am." Nothing in the physical analysis of "the body and its systems" would reveal the existence of a "perspective" within it.

    So we have at least one seemingly non-physical thing in the world.

    But wait, there's more: "Science is not concerned with the truths of aesthetic beauty, of spiritual feelings, or of social well being. These other truths, are elements of other perspective models, such as religion, art, and psychology."

    Surely aesthetic beauty etc. exist, don't they? Yet science cannot account for them.

    If there were some reason to accept the physicalist dogma in the first place, we would have a difficult task cut out for us reconciling the existence of perspectives, aesthetic beauty, and so on with "the physical world [being] all there is." But since no reason to accept it was offered, the choice is simple: dump the physicalist dogma on the dustbin of history, and move on.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 2:52 PM  

  • A perspective is not a thing, it's a relation between things. Perspective is most certianly accounted for in physics, see General relativity.

    If I am on the side of the road watching a train move by, from my perspective the train moves at 60mph, yet if you are riding in a car going 50mph the train is only moving at 10mph in relation to your perspective.

    since there is no absolute one true perspective reference point, we can only say the train moves relative to something else. (nothing is at rest with respect to everything, to measure from)

    Thus, point of reference is a physical property.

    Now, as far as paradigms, these are also point of reference, but they are more complex. For example, I can plot the speed of a baseball using a line graph, a bar graph or a pie chart.

    Just because the pie chart represents different speeds as colored wedges or triangles and the line graph represents the different speeds as points ploted on a X-Y grid, does not mean that the baseball itself is a point or a triangle.

    The train has one speeds, but it is represented differently from if we choose different points of reference.

    We can recount the same events in words, written text or in pictures, but the same event occured in all these paradigms and perspectives. The there are some things the pictures leave out that the text can describe, some things the tone of voice can infuse with the story that the text leaves out and there are non-linguisitc cues that only the picuture can show us.

    However, the same physical event occured.

    Everything we experince is an impression made on the brain via the interaction of the sense organs with an event in space-time.

    Thus, the eyes have a image based paradigm, the ears a sound based paradigm. Text and words are different perspectives on the same event. Likewise hearing a sound yourself is a totally different perspective and paradigm, from seeing someone else's ear drum vibrate and detecting the nuero-chemcistry with PET scans etc.

    This does not mean that the frst person auditory perspective includes some kinds of ghost in the mechanism, to account for these differences. It simply means that the man who hears a bell ring experinces a different set of references and uses a different set of symbolic abstractions to map the sound, than does the 3rd person who rather than hear the bell ring, observes the mechanism of the ist person's ears and brain encoding the ringing into symbols.

    Yes, reading a book is not the same as watching a man read a book. Just because the one who reads the book can recount the actual words he read and you watching him read can not tell what he is reading, doesn't mean something is going on in the reading man that is mysterious, spiritual, non-physical, or in any way more than what you can observe by staring at him as he reads.

    By Anonymous froclown, at 5:42 PM  

  • There is confusion here being two uses of the word perspective. Perspective in the context of relativity theory (not necessarily Einsteinian general relativity, but even the simpler form of relativity that applies in Newtonian theory which is what froclown is describing here) is synonymous with "frame of reference," not "point of view," let alone "mind" or "consciousness." If our trains are moving towards each other at 30 mph, I see your train moving at 60 mph; and a radar gun would also record your train moving at 60 mph. But it sounds very odd to say that the radar gun has a "perspective," though it certainly has-- or "is in"-- a frame of reference in the physicist's sense. No one, meanwhile, thinks the radar gun is conscious. You can define "perspective" this way if you like, but in that case it can clearly shed no light on the subject of consciousness.

    A more fundamental problem with froclown's argument can be seen by dissecting the first sentence: "A perspective is not a thing, it's a relation between things." But is not a relation between things, itself a thing? If not, is it not-a-thing, i.e., no-thing, i.e., nothing, i.e., non-existent? But then how can it "relate... things" if it doesn't exist? And how is it that we're talking about it at all?

    A "relation between [physical] things" is a thing, only it is a different kind of thing than the physical things themselves. How do you account for that? Physicalism stands on the thin ice of its own metaphysical naivete, and you don't have to hit it too hard before you see the ice cracking, and physicalism drowns.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 6:35 PM  

  • both "types of perspectives" are analogous, that is why they are both denoted by the same word.

    When we talk about the perspective of a painting, we are talking about the angle from which it is viewed, where the focal point is located, we are also talking about the style of the painting. An impressionist painting is from a different perspective than a cubist painting.

    One is trying to capture the abstract essence of the immediate impression on the senses prior to the mind filling in the gaps with it's stored knowledge, the other is trying to view a three dimensional object as it would appear to a four dimensional eye.

    Yet, we can represent the same physical reality, in either of these ways. Picaso and Monet can paint the same lilies in two different perspectives, yet the lilies themselves remain what they are. Even seeing them as lilies is an abstraction from their true nature via a perspective. A man with poor vision may see not lilies but blotches of color. Yet, Monet's dots, Picaso's cubes, the biologists flora, the chemists double bonded nitrogen-carbon composits, and the far sighted man's colored blotches all represent the very same reality.

    That reality the ontological BEING, which expresses itself via these phenomenological modes, is the "physical reality".

    Now, if there is such a think as a soul or a mind, then that soul or mind must have some property, and to have a property as I have shown it must be in a relative interaction with some other thing with properties.

    If the "soul" is truly a totally unrelated ontological substance from the physical world, ie BEING, then we can have no phenomenal experience of it. If however this soul or mind stuff is as I suggest merely a phenomenal representation of the physical world from the first person perspective, then the ontological foundation of the soul is identical with the ontological foundation of the brain.

    Thus we have a single ontological substance BEING (the physical world) which is manifest as seemingly different phenomena relative to the point of view perspective. (first vs third person)

    Thus the physical is identical with the spiritual or "non-physical". Yet the physical third person perspective provides us with a more clear and pragmatic representation of the mind than does the first person. Just as a third person view of a maze from above is far easier to navigate than a first person view from with in the maze.

    The type of information contained in the first person perspective is not of interest to the physicist. Just as it is of no use to Picaso in his exploration of higher dimensional concepts to look at things from Monet's point of view. And to a man who wants to replicate the maze, the fear of being lost inside the maze as irrelevant as the birds eye view is to the man who wants to pit his skill against the maze without aid.

    By Anonymous froclown, at 7:54 PM  

  • The movie contained on a DVD is irrelevant to the understanding of how chemical composition of the DVD, the understanding of DVD formats and the understanding of how DVD's physically work.

    You can stare at a DVD until your blue in the face, and you can disect the DVD player until you understand every aspect of it. Yet, at no point will this reveal the content of the DVD.

    However, there is nothing about the DVD, the player, the screen, the light, or the speakers, that is non-physical.

    Darth Vader is not found in the disk nor in the player, yet if you play the disk, Darth Vader appears. No magick, no mystery, and no immaterial soul. Just physical properties and relative space-time arrangements of those physical objects.

    By Anonymous froclown, at 8:01 PM  

  • Pretty educated guy, this froclown. He gives a good concise view of the physicalist perspective. I salute you!

    By Blogger Thomas, at 10:15 PM  

  • An interesting discussion here. But some confusion:

    re: "If the 'soul' is truly a totally unrelated ontological substance from the physical world, ie BEING, then we can have no phenomenal experience of it."

    First, no one is claiming that the soul is totally unrelated to the physical world; rather that it is not reducible to it. Obviously there is an interface between the two "substances" (if you want to use that metaphor).

    Second, and more importantly, if the soul were totally unrelated to the physical world, it is the physical world we could have no phenomenal experience of. This is the case of a person who is blind and deaf and lacks all other senses.

    re: "You can stare at a DVD until your blue in the face, and you can disect the DVD player until you understand every aspect of it. Yet, at no point will this reveal the content of the DVD."

    We can't find out the contents of the DVD by looking at the DVD, because our eyes aren't keen enough, nor do we know enough about the process by which the DVD creates images. But Darth Vader is in the DVD, and if our eyes were sharp enough, and we knew how to decipher the codes, we could find Darth Vader in the DVD.

    The physicalist claim is that the brain is like a DVD: that if we knew enough about how the brain works, we could discover the contents of its thoughts, because the brain is reducible to its micro-physical properties. I'm not confident in my ability to make an argument which would rule this out. But we certainly have no reason to believe it is the case.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 5:52 AM  

  • If the soul or mind is a thing with properties, which is to say it is something definite that can be defined and spoken about, then it is a physical entity, which is to say it exists ontologically. It may be a previously undiscovered physical entity, but physical none the less. For example radiation is a physical property, that was once unknown, but was discovered.

    Now if the soul is something that is not physical, then it can not have a definite existence, it can not be defined as having any properties, and it can not be described or spoken of.

    Thus either a thing IS or it isn't and if it isn't then it's not something to begin with.

    So, your position basically boils down to either (1) there is something that doesn't exist that possesses the brain as a ghost in the machine.

    Or (2) there is a hither to undiscovered and unaccounted for physical entity which operates in the process of conscious thought.

    Now 1) is nonsense and contradicts itself, thus it' absurdity rules it out.

    and 2) is speculation that yields only to further emperacle study into the situation. That is a refinement of our knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, and neuro-science.

    There is no evidence for any sort of ghostly non-being beings, as these would be being that aren't. Or beings which have no definition or manifest properties.

    I doubt that modern artist believe their art has beauty because they endowed it with their mojo by capturing some spirit or nympth of aphrodite in the paint. But one this was the how people thought beauty worked, there was a spiritual essence and the artist was a magician who imprisoned it in a cage of paint.

    However, we now know that there is nothing in the paint but chemicals, and beauty is not a spiritual creature.

    By Anonymous froclown, at 7:03 AM  

  • Hello. And Bye.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:03 AM  

  • Froclown is rayne queller in second life!!!

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