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Mind and body

Let's imagine a story about the history of philosophy. When we see other people moving and talking, we suppose that their actions are guided by a mind like our own. And in the ancient times primitive men believed that the movement of wind, fish, animals and earthquakes are all guided by some spirits - and that those spirits react to human behavior, they can be either pleased or pissed off; accidents or illness happens when the spirits want to punish a human. Then, in the medieval times the official truth was that it was mostly a single God who is guiding the movement of winds and earthquakes. Otherwise the story was the same - the God is observing us and sending down punishments or rewards in form of accidents and lucky shots. But as the modern science emerged, it was more and more discovered that the movement of natural objects can be explained by cold, mechanical laws of physics. With experimenting and mathematical theories more and more phenomenons were accurately described. And soon those same principles were applied to human behavior, too. If a human body is made of matter, and all of the matter can be explained with laws of physics, then surely human behavior is just a fine-tuned machinery working according to the same laws of physics? Now some people feel uneasy with that - claiming that something very important is lost if we reduce human existence into mere materialistic mechanics.

So, let's take a closer look at this. I think I've touched this already in some of the previous posts, and in many discussions with my friends, so sorry if I'm repeating something already said =) First, I guess that one of the major problems is a notion of free will. We like to think that our own actions are based on our own decisions, guided by our free will which is not pre-determined by any mechanical laws. So it becomes a problem to explain how the free will does interact with a machine made of molecules. If our brain is nothing but atoms, and all the movement and reactions of atoms can be explained by laws of physics, then there is no room for the free will - we are robots, just a clever clock-work programmed to tick in a certain way. Well, but let's suppose that there still would be something unknown to modern physics. A some sort of immaterial soul capable of making free decisions of its own. Now what would that mean? As still, I suppose, that soul would have memories, values, intentions, and all kind of beliefs. Let's suppose that the soul has an intention to eat something. He knows that in the cupboard there is canned tuna and rye bread. And in the supermarket there are lot more other stuff, and in the bank-account there is some money. Now, the soul considers all these options - maybe saving money and time is a priority - on the other hand canned tuna feels like unethical food and he would prefer locally grown organic vegetables, but just got that can of tuna from his parents. So, he decides to eat tuna and rye bread, as that is the best way to get cheap food quickly. But we know that he was not forced to eat the tuna, it was his own free decision, and he could have chosen other options, too. Oh well, now if this is what we mean by the special freedom of will, I'm not so sure if this requires anything more than some sort of decision-making algorithm evaluating different options, processing information to make a best possible decision with the given data. I mean, we can say that the soul would have chosen differently, had the situation been different, or had heen prefences been different - which is same as saying that if we input different data into the algorithm, we get different output. Then, to defend a metaphysical freedom of will, we could say that the soul can always choose against "the best possible decision" - there are numerous examples when a human person knows what he should do, but still chooses to do something else - and is to be held responsible of making that decision. I don't doubt that. I just think that in the strict metaphysical sense these cases can still be seen as a conflict between different premises. For example, I know that I shouldn't overspeed, but I still might sometimes decide to drive faster than allowed - often because I calculate the risks and decide that it is safe to drive bit faster - and I have heard young men doing that because they want to make impression on their friends. So, in the case of our imaginary young driver "making an impression" is a stronger preference than "driving safely" - especially when the driver believes that he has the skills required to handle the car when overspeeding - so, in his way he is also calculating the risks just like I do, and deciding that at the given circumstances it is safe to overspeed. From a psychological viewpoint I can undestand both of these cases. But a police officer would not be interested in our reasons of making a decision to overspeed, (s)he would just hand the driver a speeding ticket. And, if I say to a police officer: "You can't punish me - I'm not responsible for overspeeding, it was just my brain (mis)calculating preferences and firing certain neurons making that leg to push the pedal to the metal." it won't make a difference. A philosophical police officer would reply: "No problem, sir. It is equally the brains of voters who made the decision to vote for lawmakers, and the lawmaker brains firing certain neurons to pass a law which says that overspeeding earns you a penalty. And the brain of a police officer now fires some more neurons to hand the ticket to you. This is how it goes - if decision making is reduced to brain activity, then responsibility and rules go there, too and nothing changes."

OK, I know this is not convincing for those who feel that something essential is lost if we say that freedom of will is a mere illusion. Instead of argumenting more to defend my point, I continue with examining this word "mere". As I guess it is in the very core of our problem. Without a belief in a metaphysical freedom of will we could still have things like law and responsibility. So what makes us feel uneasy, then? Sure, nobody wants to be a mere robot, a mere piece of machinery? Well, but that was just a part of the old dualism - seeing "matter" as a mere resource, an inferior level of existence without any value in itself; compared to "the soul" which was seen as noble and valuable, higher and above the material level, with a god-given right to utilize all the material resources to advance the great projects of the soul. So, if we deny the existence of an immaterial soul, then does it mean that all what is left is non-valuable inferior matter? No, not likely. As, strictly speaking we also have to abandon the whole dualism. If we say that there is no immaterial soul with a free will, we then must also say that all those noble and valuable and great and awesome features of the soul are to be found in the working of the material world. No more can we see material world as a "mere machine". It becomes something more; a wonderful sphere of existence in itself.

And, actually, I think that when we abandon dualism, we also have to abandom some of the old notions of "body as a machine". I mean, we can't deny that our body is processing information - the body has perceptions, intentions, memories, values and beliefs; and makes decisions based on these. Some of this information processing is what we usually call "consciousness" - that experience of silent talking going on inside one's own mind; the talking which is aware of itself as the one experiencing the perceptions, intentions, memories, beliefs, values and decisions. But then there are other layers, too. To illustrate this, I'll tell a real-life story:

When we were school-kids, we often played soccer. One of the boys, called Samu, always wanted to be the goalkeeper. He became very good at it. I especially remember one time when we were not playing, but watching younger kids play a game. It was not an official game, and Samu was casually leaning to the goal post, just barely outside the game area. The game was raging on, and the best player of the other team approached the goal. The player kicked the ball, launcing it towards the goal, and the poor goalkeeper was too slow to stop it. With his eyes half-closed, seemingly not even paying that much attention to the whole game, Samu reached his right hand just in time to stop the ball. Well, of course this is against the rules, as Samu was not part of the team. But we schoolkids weren't always so strict with the rules - everybody just cheered at Samu for his extremely talented and well-timed rescue.

Mathematically speaking, it would be possible to measure the location, speed and movement of the ball, to determine the flight path. And from that on it is possible to infer where Samu should place his hand to stop the ball - and again from that on we could calculate which muscles do the work to move the hand, finally finding out which neurons have to be fired to stop the ball before it is a goal. But anybody can see that there is no time to make those calculations - and Samu wasn't even so good at maths, and also we were all to young to study all the functions required for those calculations. So, should we say that instead of conscious calculations it is just learnt behavior - so many times Samu has seen a football aproaching, and with trial and error he has learnt where to place his hand when he sees a ball coming from a certain angle? I don't believe that it would be that simple; Samu had nearly zero experience of standing outside the goal and stopping the ball from that location - the situation was non-typical, yet he was able to quickly determine the correct movement of his hand to stop the ball. To me it seems safe to assume that some parts of his brain were actually using different kinds of fast heuristics to perform the maths needed - but that information was not processed with numbers and concepts in his working memory. When doing a calculation in a maths lesson, the work is propably done by some areas of neocortex. And I guess a lot of cerebral cortex activity is what makes our ordinary waking experience. Maybe the (heuristical) maths required to determine the flying path of a football is performed in the cerebellum. And what happens in cerebellum only enters our waking consciousness as bodily sensations and the like - I bet that if Samu would describe what happened at the moment, he would have said: "I just felt that if I raise my hand there, I can stop the ball before it is a goal."

The old dualism, with all the metaphors of machinery, tried to tell us that our behavior is just a bunch of conditioned reflexes; stimulus A triggers reaction 1, stimulus B triggers reaction 2, and we are made up of just so many connections of these stimulus-reaction pairs. But that is just an assumption, and I think that it largerly fails to desrcibe the actual workings of humans or animals. On the contrary, if we think that an organism is processing information (on different levels), then we begin to see much more dynamic and complex processes going on. To me it seems scientifically justifiable to say that even the simple singe-cell bacteria are processing information and adapting their behavior to circumstances. This means that a simple cell is not just a "mere machine" - it is an intentional being capable of adjusting its behavior. A simple bacteria might have primitive inentions like "avoid lethal conditions" and "approach favourable conditions". And a young human male driver has more complex intentions like "make an impression on female passengers." And our imaginary person had an intention to "eat something which is ethical enough, prefer such food which is quickly and easily accessible, avoid spending money" - leading him to consume the tuna and rye bread which he already had.

Now, funnily enough, this kind of scientific materialism seems to lead to a modern version of panpsychism. If we don't need an immaterial soul to explain consciousness, then we are safe to assume that any material, integrated, information processing entity also has a layer of consciouss experience. Humans and animals, maybe even those bacteria. Why not trees and other plants, as there is a growing empirical evidence that they are also actively processing information. Does this bring us back to the primitive animistic world of unseen spirits driving diseases and disasters, dwelling in trees and animals? No. Again, if we abandon the soul / matter dualism, then we also have to abandon the idea that "conciousness" always means human-like emotions guiding the actions. If a tree has some sort of conscious experience of being there, it is very unlikely that the tree would have an experience of being pleased or pissed off by human behavior, nor the experience of making a decision to punish or to reward that human. On the contrary, the tree might have some other kind of consciouss experiences we can't even imagine of how they feel like. And to me it seems that all so often we are having hard time trying to understand how other human beings feel and experience the world, so it must be even harder to try to undestand how it feels like to be a bat or a pike.

One final note to all of this. As, actually, I also think that there is no reason to assume that consciousness is rooted in brains only. There is a lot of information processing going on in the other parts of our bodies, too. The immune system and the digestion are both able to remember what they have encountered before, and given some time they are also able to invent new solutions. And both of these systems communicate with each other, and with the brain. So, maybe they also somehow contribute to our actual experience of how it feels to exists as a human being. To illustrate this I post three pictures. In every picture you can see things like a face, a helmet, a knife and a bottle. Yet every picture has a different atmoshphere and mood to it. Maybe our hear, guts, adrenaline glands and immune system and all those are somehow "filtering" and "adjusting" the content of our waking conscious experience, giving rise to different subtle moods and vibes.

Oh well. Yes there is a lot more to this topic, so if I don't lose my concentration, I try to return with one or two more entries, within a week or so.

a tired soldier
a tired soldier
a cubistic soldier
a cubistic soldier
a moody acid soldier
a moody acid soldier
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Comments

I'm a bit late to add a comment here, but I believe that maybe the radiation coming from outer space and crossing our bodies also plays a role in the workings of our bodies and minds by randomizing some events

At The University we studied some texts which were over 2000 years old - so I'd guess your comment is not late in any way =) There hardly is "best before" date to philosophy.

Ah, cosmic radiation - well, why not. To me the main point seems to be this:
Even if we restrict us to strictly empirical scientific findings, we can't rule out all kinds of strange and miraculous phenomenons going on in the conscious experience and life in general. The modern science has only mapped that much of the known universe, and sure there are a lot more miracles still to be discovered.

So, in this sense, personally I find the material world as miraculous, majestetic, great and awesome. All the sense of mystery and dignity is still there, although I don't believe in any supernatural non-scientific layers of existence. (But I don't rule out that there might be layers of existence currently unknown to human science - and someday we might find things which make us to re-write a lot of scientific theories. We never know. That is the nature of scientific thinking; non-dogmatism.)

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