Philosophy

You And Your Brain. On Agnosticism And Consciousness.

What is the relationship between matter and mind? On the one hand we have matter. Good old solid matter: dirt, stuff, Goop. It appears to be the foundation of everything we experience. On the other hand we have mind. I really don't know anything first hand about your mind but I have a pretty intimate experience of my own. Since you seem to behave in ways that I recognize I infer that you have a mind pretty much like my own. So there is matter and there is mind and for the last 2,500 years or so we have been trying to figure out the relationship between them.

Last week we had a series of posts on "life after death" prompted by physicist Stephen Hawking's comments on the topic. My first take on the subject was to put up Monty Python's brilliant routine where an erstwhile talk-show host interviews three dead people on the topic (getting no response from the corpses he concludes the answer is "No"). Later I admitted to being agnostic on the subjects believing that there was really no data to support conclusions one way or the other.

My co-blogger Alva Noe, no slouch in philosophical discussions of mind and matter, took the opposite position claiming that the very concept of testing such a proposition makes no sense. In Alva's view we don't have a handle on the appropriate background against which to frame the question. As he put it:

People can say whatever they like about what they believe. But until a background is in place that gives sense to the proposal, I doubt that it is even possible to believe such a thesis.

Alva wasn't the only person to disagree with my position. Over at Cosmic Variance, the always-lucid Sean Carroll argued that my stance was tantamount to making claims of new physics. He says everything about the basic laws of physics is known. Thus being agnostic on the issue is a claim that there is something more occurring in the world than our current understanding of quantum field theory.

As I am writing this over a terrible hotel continental breakfast in the midst of traveling (Washington, D.C.), I am not in much of a position to respond to these objections with the clarity they deserve. I will, however, take a first stab at it.

First let me be clear about my position. I am not agnostic about the existence of a human soul. The idea of an eternal, non-material essence to our personal identities that, as Sean puts it, "drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV" makes as little sense to me as it does to him. What I am agnostic about is the relationship between mind and matter. The real question here is about the nature of consciousness, and in that regard I am willing to consider that both Alva and Sean are right.

(1). We do not have to have a grasp of the background lying behind our current formulations of the problem to assume answers to that problem.

(2.) The problem of consciousness does not reduce to the standard model of particle physics.

It is at this point that we should begin what I consider to be the most fascinating question in all of philosophy and modern science: what is the nature of consciousness?

That means opening up issues like reductionism and emergence, bringing up writers like David Chalmers, Thomas Nagel and others and, of course, raising the every vexing issue of qualia (we also point to Alva's wonderful writing on the subject). In this blog we have had discussion on the subject before including proposals by Stu and Ursula.

For today I am going to leave the door to that discussion closed until another time. I am, however, going to end this post with the belief that stands at the base of my agnosticism concerning what happens after the end of biological functioning.

I don't think we are close to understanding consciousness.

More importantly, I don't think we are close to understanding phenomena of subjectivity. The act being is what we really don't have a hold on. The vividness with which I, and only I, experience my subjectivity remains a profound and delicious mystery for science, philosophy and all aspects of culture to explore. While there has been wonderful and extraordinary progress in neurosciences, the so-called hard problem of consciousness (a la David Chalmers) remains just as hard as ever.

Thus we are just at the beginning of developing a true "working" theory of consciousness. Like the progress of mechanics, I suspect it is going to take us a while to even figure out how to ask questions correctly — particularly given our inability to conceive of explorations of subjectivity from the inside.

So, to be clear, I am not agnostic because I hope that my soul will ascend to Science Heaven, where I could spend eternity learning more about thermodynamics and quantum information theory (and where Firefly ran for 100 seasons). I am not agnostic because I hope souls exist. I doubt they do. I am agnostic about what happens after biological functioning because neither I, nor anyone else, understands consciousness and its fundamental relation to biology, chemistry and physics.

There are lots of great ideas for sure. But a theory of consciousness? A theory of subjectivity?

Not yet. Not by a long shot.

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