Most of us believe that we think, feel, act have desires, purpose and experiences. We believe that we are conscious, thinking acting persons. In fact I have often stated that what makes us human is our consciousness (learned many years ago from the good Dr Phil) – not only can we make decisions and think about things but we are aware of those processes. We are aware of some of the important processes of mind. We have little chats with ourselves as we ponder problems. We seem to be able to guide to some extent some of the activities of mind. We posit a sense of self that seems to guide these processes and as a result believe we have some opportunity to make choices about the direction of our lives.
There is however a large body of scientific and philosophical opinion which attempts to refute this concept. Eminent thinkers like Daniel Dennett, Paul Churchland, Richard Stich and others would have us believe that this is just an illusion. They argue that this first person subjective experience that seems to indicate a sense of self is merely a construct of the brain – a manifestation of the electro-chemical processes that this marvelous organ utilizes to equip us with the wherewithal of dealing with everyday life.
In previous blogs we have discussed dualism. This is a very important example of dualism (the mind-body problem) or its refutation. Dennett and the materialist reductionists believe that the physical world is all that there is and that notions of self, consciousness etc are merely illusions created by the brain.
The traditional opponents to this way of thinking have argued just the opposite. They maintain that there is something unique in human beings (traditionally in religious contexts called “the soul”) which is additional to their physical characteristics. That is to say there is a non-physical something that provides a sense of self. Some traditions believe that this is immortal and survives the physical death of the body. Discussion on this phenomenon has engaged the thinking of philosophers from Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas, Avicenna, Immanuel Kant right through to the likes of Dennett, Hofstadter and their peers.
The argument comes down to a strange dichotomy. The materialists believe that nothing is real other than what can be physically observed and measured – atoms and molecules comprise everything of consequence. The more hearty philosophers even go further, claiming that subjectivity and the self are illusions and do not actually exist.
The other camp, (let’s call them the spiritualists) believe that consciousness is the prime quality of human beings and that consciousness is not a derivative of the electro-chemical processes of the brain but is, in fact, the fundamental stuff of the universe. To them it is the physical world that is the illusion (Maya in Sanskrit).
Dr Susan Blackmore, Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth, falls squarely in the materialist camp. She believes our feelings of self are unreliable and she rejects the idea that we are persisting selves.
In her little book “Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction” she declares, “Our language spins a story of a self and so we come to believe that there is, in addition to our single body, a single inner self who has consciousness, holds opinions, and makes decisions. Really there is no inner self but only multiple, parallel processes that give rise to a benign user illusion – a useful fiction.”
Elsewhere she writes:
“The trouble is that it is very hard to accept in one’s own personal life. It means accepting that there is no one who is having these experiences. It means accepting that every time I seem to exist, this is just a temporary fiction and not the same ‘me’ who seemed to exist a moment before or last week, or last year. This is tough but I think it gets easier with practice.”
This is a hard concept for many of us to accept (and some of the internal contradictions of the above statement will probably be obvious to you).
If you are a materialist then, you believe that there is nothing other than a physical world and our notions of personal freedom and an independent self are but an illusion.
One of the most telling ripostes countering the materialists’ arguments was an essay by Thomas Nagel published in The Philosophical Review in October 1974 entitled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (If you are interested you can google this title and easily find it on the Web.)
Nagel argued that even if behaviour was determined by the physical properties of the brain, it is difficult to believe that such a causal relationship could explain our subjective experiences. It seems that our inner experiences are unique to ourselves (and even Susan Blackmore seems to have some sympathy for that notion.). Whilst we might have experiences that are analogous to others, we can never experience what others experience. Tellingly, Nagel proposed that he might be able to imagine what it was like to have membrane wings and detect the physical world by echo-location but that would only be his postulation about what it would be like for him to be a bat! It might have no resemblance to what a bat actually experiences.
In many traditions the soul is posited as the incorporeal essence of human beings. In some such traditions (but not all) the soul is deemed to survive the physical death of the body. The soul is deemed to be essential to consciousness and indeed personality. The sense of self is then a manifestation of the soul.
For the ancient Greeks humans only had life because of their souls. Someone alive was “ensouled”. Plato, following from Socrates believed that the soul was the essence of a person.
Some traditions believed that the soul is reincarnated into new bodies after death. This is the belief of many Buddhists for example. Pythagoras also appears to have established a religion based on metempsychosis (transmigration of the soul or reincarnation).
Perhaps the crucial question in these deliberations is how real is the first person, subjective experience? Daniel Dennett, the arch-materialist-reductionist, claims to be more certain about mass, charge and space-time than he is of experience. (What a contrast to Descartes’ statement “I think therefore I am” And remember this is what initiated the whole materialistic reductionist enterprise!)
Frank Jackson asserting the dominance of the physical, has written, “If mental nature is not an addition to physical nature, then the physical way things are necessitates the mental way things are. Fix the physical way things are and you have done enough to fix the mental way things are.”
Or as the materialist D M Armstrong asserts, “ I think it is true to say that one view is steadily gaining ground so that it bids fair to become established scientific doctrine. This is the view that we can give a complete account of man in purely physico-chemical terms.”
Well, as you would no doubt predict, I disagree with Armstrong. However, I suspect that the mind-body problem might never be resolved by science. I think it is a dilemma at the edge of our understanding. (Remember my references to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle referenced in previous blogs which I believe are manifestations of the limitations of the human mind.)
Next week I think I will offer you some arguments in support of the Spiritualists’ point of view. But then again, on a whim, which is obviously generated by the physical processes of my mind, a bit of electro-chemical activity and probably mis-firing neurons, I might just tell you the story of “Mucky the Turtle” instead!