Consciousness and the Brain

Last month a commenter suggested that “I would be interested to see you research and post on ‘How science addresses the subjective, in relation to consciousness and freewill'”, to which I responded that I might write up a summary of the ways this is addressed in the book I was reading, Stanislas Dehaene’s “Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts”. Furthermore, the comment offered a particular direction to consider, namely that science can “collate and analyse subjective reports and hope something comes out of this – e.g. by correlating objective measurement with the subjective reports. … The problem with this is that these results are generally not accorded the same scientific status.” Dehaene actually spills a considerable amount of ink in the opening chapters addressing this concern. For example:

Consciousness and the Brain“This research strategy was simple enough, yet it relied on a controversial step, one that I personally view as the third key ingredient to the new science of consciousness: taking subjective reports seriously. … The participant’s introspection was crucial: it defined the very phenomenon that we aimed to study.” (pg 11)

“The correct perspective is to think of subjective reports as raw data. A person who claims to have had an out-of-body experience genuinely feels dragged to the ceiling, and we will have no science of consciousness unless we seriously address why such feelings occur. In fact, the new science of consciousness makes an enormous use of purely subjective phenomena, such as visual illusions, misperceived pictures, psychiatric delusions, and other figments of the imagination. Only these events allow us to distinguish objective physical stimulation from subjective perception, and therefore to search for brain correlates of the latter rather than the former.” (pg 12)

“All this evidence points to an important conclusion, the third key ingredient in our budding science of consciousness: subjective reports can and should be trusted. … introspection is a respectable source of information. Not only does it provide valuable data, which can often be confirmed objectively, by behavioral or brain-imaging measures, it also defines the very essence of what a science of consciousness is about.” (pg 42)

The Recipe

Those quotes refer to three key ingredients which go beyond the objective data about brain activity that we can gather through fMRI, EEG and the like. Dehaene identifies these ingredients as conscious access, manipulation of conscious perception and, as noted, careful recording of introspective reports. He then goes on to further define each of these.

Conscious access is defined as the awareness of specific information – it’s the foundational definition of consciousness that underpins more elaborate attributions, like self-awareness. As is elucidated in the book, our brains actually consume massive amounts of perceptual data. Much of what is received by our senses and processed in our brain eludes our conscious awareness. Conscious access is that sliver of data which enters our stream of thought from amongst the mountain of perceptions which bombard us from without and arise from within.

Our conscious access is reportable. As I type this, you are receiving a report of my conscious access. We cannot report on that which we are unaware of, so it is by definition that reports are only informative with regard to the content of our conscious access. Experiments can build upon this by asking participants to focus on a particular element of their perceptual space that has been carefully crafted by the experimenters. This manipulation of conscious perception is the experimental variable that allows the researchers to segregate the data into that which correlates with consciousness and that which does not. Dehaene outlines several primary manipulations – binocular rivalry, attentional blink, subliminal stimuli – and references several others throughout the course of the book. Each of these present an opportunity to separate conscious processing from unconscious processing and so look for the signatures of consciousness.

Dehaene then goes on to highlight the massive amount of work that our brains are doing subconsciously and how this surreptitiously influences our conscious access. Research in this domain paints a picture of the inverse side of consciousness and offered a baseline against which consciousness can be compared. After taking a side trip into discussions about the viability of the evolutionary origins of consciousness as a tool for organizing and prioritizing the competing interests in our subconscious processes, we are introduced to the findings that this recipe has thus far wrought.

Finding Consciousness

The toolkit described above has been extensively deployed in the lab and the cumulative results led Dehaene to identify four reliable signatures of consciousness. They are:

dehaene_fig16

[1] “Although a subliminal stimulus can propagate deeply into the cortex, this brain activity is strongly amplified when the threshold for awareness is crossed. It then invades many additional regions, leading to a sudden ignition of parietal and prefrontal circuits” (Fig 16, pg 119)

(2) "In the EEG, conscious access appears as a late slow wave called the P3 wave. This event emerges as late as one-third of a second after the stimulus: our consciousness lags behind the external world."

[2] “In the EEG, conscious access appears as a late slow wave called the P3 wave. … For conscious words only, the wave of activity is amplified and flows into the prefrontal cortex and many other associative regions, then back to visual areas. This global ignition causes a large positive voltage on the top of the head – the P3 wave.” (Fig 18, pg 123)

dehaene_fig20

[3] “A long burst of high-frequency activity accompanies the conscious perception of a flashed picture … When viewers failed to see the picture, only a brief burst of high-frequency activity traversed the ventral visual cortex. … Conscious perception was characterized by a lasting burst of high-frequency electrical activity, which indicates a strong activation of local neuronal circuits.” (Fig 20, pg 136)

dehaene_fig21

[4] “The synchronization of many distant brain regions [form] a global web … during conscious word perception, causal relations show a massive bidirectional increase between distant cortical regions, particularly with the frontal lobe. Only a modest and local synchronization occurs when the participants fail to perceive the face or word.” (Fig 21, pg 138)

The common attribute which ties these signatures together is that they all represent prolific activity across large areas of the brain. In contrast to Descartes’ pineal soul-suite, the evidence points to consciousness as a phenomenon that is spread throughout the brain when a massive avalanche of distributed activity is launched. This excitation is what Dehaene calls “global ignition”. After having presented all of the correlative data Dehaene anticipates a common objection – correlation does not equal causation – and so he offers evidences to support the proposal that brain activity is more than just a side-effect of the ghost in the machine and that there are reasons to believe we are glimpsing consciousness itself.

“Let us play devil’s advocate again … Might [global ignition] bear no specific relation to the details of our conscious thoughts? Might it just be a surge of global excitation, unrelated to the actual contents of subjective experience? … Calling such a brain event the medium of consciousness would be like confusing the thump of the Sunday newspaper on our doorstep with the actual text that conveys the news.” (pg 142-143)

The first stop for the counter against this objection comes at the Centre for Systems Neuroscience at the University of Leicester in the UK, where Rodrigo Quian Quiroga enjoys probing individual neurons and finding ways to incorporate pop culture icons into his experiments. He has spent the last decade examining the relationship between conscious access and discrete patterns of neural firing at the level of individual neurons. The short story is that through a novel technique pioneered by Itzhak Fried, we have been able to take advantage of the surgeries performed on epilepsy patients to implant fine electrodes that record from individual neurons. When these are monitored during experiments there are very specific relationships found between perceptual and recollected concepts and individual neurons. Those experiments have not only identified a link between concepts and individual neurons, but the same tools used to investigate consciousness have been utilized to show that some neurons are only linked to conscious perception of stimulus – in effect, the neuron can be said to be a part of a conscious thought. These findings have been documented across many publications, but a few of the key overview papers are “Concept cells: The building blocks of declarative memory functions” and “Brain Cells for Grandmother“. Furthermore, similar findings led to the awarding of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of place cells; individual neurons which correlate with our location in space. These were first discovered in rats and then subsequently also identified in humans. The extrapolations we can draw from the discovery of an association between individual cells and conscious perception are potentially monumental. In particular, it does not seem inconceivable that perhaps some day we may be able to translate the philosopher’s qualia as a pattern in the brain.

tms_1911

Transcranial magnetic stimulation in 1911 (C.E. Magnusson and H.C. Stevens)

While fascinating, the added specificity of the single neuron experiments has not yet established causation. It could be that those individual neurons are simply assigned dedicated roles as the bridge between body and particular concepts of the mind. Perhaps in those experimental observations we are simply bystanders watching as the train of thought passes by. That is not impossible, but there’s more to examine. The next stop starts with a bit of time travel back to the early 20th century, when several parties began toying with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and reporting various sensory anomalies in conjunction with the activation of the coils. Vast improvements in the equipment have allowed these experiments to continue today with sharp precision that enables experimenters to focus the stimulus to specific regions of the brain. In doing so, they have been able to trigger domain specific sensory illusion – light when there is none to be found, motion while sitting still and color in a monochrome scene.

Perhaps more significant, however, is not the creation of sensory perception through TMS, but rather the disruption of consciousness itself through the same mechanism. Magnetic pulses targeted toward the long-distance networks that facilitate global ignition have been shown to eradicate a conscious perception that would have otherwise obtained. Even more relevant to the question of the interplay between the subjective and the objective is a study in which the prefrontal lobes were overwhelmed with pulses, leaving an effect which lasted up to 20 minutes. During this time, the subjects were asked to perform simple tasks of judging shapes that were presented to them. Objectively, their accuracy was effectively equivalent to their performance prior to the stimulation. Subjectively, however, they reported significant doubt in their answers. Objectively they were just as capable but their conscious awareness of their judgement had been impaired.

Before closing this section I must acknowledge that for the resolute dualist, we still haven’t fully addressed the objection. Maybe the TMS is acting in the place of our sensory input, stimulating or disrupting those neural mind-bridges in such a way that the mind thinks it is receiving or missing sensory data. OK, then let’s go beyond the content of the book and take a look at some additional research. If we say that the mind is distinct from matter then theoretically our memories are also made of mind stuff. However, starting about 70 years ago with Wilder Penfield experiments have been shown to trigger memory recall through direct electrode stimulation of specific brain regions. Whereas the dualist could argue that this stimulation is no different than the recall we experience when a familiar sight or sound is encountered through sensory input, the distinction becomes apparent when stimulation is used to disrupt conscious memory recall. For example, by acting directly on brain regions associated with verbal memory, electrical stimulation can directly impair recall of names for familiar objects and this phenomenon is often used to locate brain function through the process of cortical stimulation mapping. It is not that the person’s sensory perception of the object is disrupted but rather that their recall of the memory content which associates words with the object has been impaired. I find it difficult to understand how this result fits into a dualist framework.

In total, there is a large body of evidence that the content of our thought-life is causally connected to our neurology. We have opened an objective window onto the world of the subjective and on to consciousness itself. Massive projects are underway and, though we are still far from grasping the means of translation between the subjective and the objective, the future appears to be one in which mind and matter are proven to be one and the same.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Dehaene outlines his theory of consciousness in the fifth chapter but it’s really just a review of the ideas that he has already outlined in the previous chapters. His theory, in short, is that consciousness is roughly equivalent to the concept of “global ignition” introduced above, with the added dimension of feedback loops containing the information which persists to define our subjective experience. This is what he calls the “global neuronal workspace” theory. Information is shared throughout the brain as an evolutionary adaptation which allows us to utilize it in various ways and prioritize our attention. Within this discussion several neural computer simulations are presented which demonstrate a similar type of threshold ignition and feedback, which is central to the theory, even though that particular behavior was not deliberately designed into the model. Then, having built his theory of consciousness upon the key signatures identified above, Dehaene sets out to find a way to test it. It is one thing to find correlates of consciousness, it is quite another to use that information to build a reliable “consciousness-o-meter”.

Jean-Dominique-Bauby

Jean Dominique Bauby and his secretary

The proving ground for this theory is found in one of the most difficult medical scenarios; that of the vegetative patient. We are introduced to the spectrum of states which manifest in response to a severe insult to the brain: from brain death, to a vegetative state, to minimal consciousness and locked-in syndrome. That last of these occurs when a fully conscious brain is “locked in” to an unresponsive body, as was the case for Jean-Dominique Bauby when he authored The Diving Bell and the Butterfly with just one blinking eye. The difficulty in these cases is that with only the subject’s external, objective behavior available to the clinician, the ability to determine whether there still any internal conscious life and hope for recovery is radically impaired. What’s worse, the manipulative tools which were used to detect the signatures of consciousness in the lab are also taken out of contention due to the inability to rely upon the subject’s ability to focus their sensory perception and report on their conscious access. An alternative technique relies on the observation that we are wired to detect novelty, such that changes in our surroundings trigger a response in the brain. This trigger, however, fires even if the novelty never enters our conscious awareness. That, in turn, means that the novelty itself is not sufficient for establishing the baseline that discriminates between the unconscious response and conscious detection of the change. To get around this the research team devised a clever tool called “global auditory novelty”. Relying upon the fact that the sense of hearing is rarely lost in these brain injuries, the subjects were presented with a pattern of four “beeps” following by a “boop”. The “boop” represents the local novelty which triggers the subconscious alert that something has changed, which may or may not enter our consciousness. Our long-term, or “global” conscious perception, however, is a bit more sophisticated. Once this pattern is repeated enough times the “boop” becomes part of the expected sequence even though it triggers the alert in the brain. This causes the “boop” to eventually slip out of our conscious awareness. So, by repeating the pattern several times and then replacing the local deviant “boop” with a global deviant “beep”, the team was able to induce a situation in which the subconscious alert was silent while the conscious detection of a global novelty was ignited.

What was the result? In the initial trial with eight patients, all three of the minimally conscious patients whose EEG’s lit up with the P3 wave in response to the global novelty later regained consciousness. In a subsequent study with 22 vegetative subjects only two yielded a P3 wave and they both became minimally conscious in the following days. While these initial tests were perfect in that they never yielded a false positive, there were still several false negatives. To address this the group compiled their data and ran a statistical analysis to refine the prediction from the EEG waveforms. This refined calculation, which incorporated the full suite of EEG data and the other signatures beyond just the P3 wave, led to an exciting result. Using a data set of over 200 patient they found that in 33% of the cases where the clinical diagnosis was “vegetative state”, the refined analysis yielded an alternative diagnosis of “minimally conscious”. Of these, a full 50% recovered to a clinically obvious conscious state in the next few months, whereas this false negative rate was otherwise only at 20%. Adding these up, we see that the clinical diagnosis was overly pessimistic for 30% of the patients while the EEG signature diagnosis was overly pessimistic for only 13% of the patients. For families struggling with questions about how to manage the care of their loved one as they cling to life, this objective detection of consciousness through physical measurement of brain activity may be the key to maximizing the realization of their hopes.

The Future

Dehaene spends the last chapter of the book examining the ways in which the science of consciousness will continue its assault on the mystery of the subjective experience. Here we are presented with data to show that the global workspace theory of consciousness tells us that infants are conscious at birth and that several other animals exhibit the signatures of consciousness. He then turns his attention to the philosophical problems of qualia:

“My opinion is that Chalmers swapped the labels: it is the ‘easy’ problem that is hard, while the hard problem just seems hard because it engages ill-defined intuitions. Once our intuition is educated by cognitive neuroscience and computer simulations, Chalmers’s hard problem will evaporate. The hypothetical concept of qualia, pure mental experience detached from any information-processing role, will be viewed as a peculiar idea of the prescientific era, much like vitalism” (pg 262)

and free will:

“Our brain states are clearly not uncaused and do not escape the laws of physics – nothing does. But our decisions are genuinely free whenever they are based on a conscious deliberation that proceeds autonomously … When this occurs we are correctly speaking of a voluntary decision – even if it is, of course, ultimately caused by our genes, our life history, and the value functions they have inscribed in our neuronal circuits.” (pg 264-265)

While I am not yet willing to express a level of confidence on par with Dehaene regarding his conclusions, I am obliged to say that I agree (and I posted similar thoughts on free will in the post which inspired those introductory comments last month). Even so, neuroscience may never be able to deal an incontrovertible death blow to the dualist paradigm. Like Sagan’s infamous garage dwelling dragon, the mind can always be excused from questioning and made into an extra immaterial layer that mirrors the brain even at the level of individual neurons and synapses. At some point, however, it becomes clear that we are just playing games. When that time comes, if it hasn’t already, we need to acknowledge the data for what it is and the implicit conclusion that we are nothing more than our physical body; that our identity – our conscious self – is found in our brain.

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Investigating pragmatic Christianity

rearviewTwo years into this journey and I find myself at a place where I can scarcely imagine reaffirming Christianity as the best explanation of reality. Even the most “liberal” flavor of the faith looks difficult to swallow. But there is more to life than knowledge and sometimes the most rational thing we can do is eschew truth. Don’t tell me it’s a sugar pill if it is truly my best shot at feeling better. Just lie to me and give me the damn pill.

Almost two years ago I sat in a pastor’s office with my wife to discuss the revelation that I could no longer honestly call myself a Christian. At some point in the discussion I said that I knew that I could blind myself to all sources of doubt and immerse myself in the Christian world – and then wait. After enough time I would probably return to a genuine faith. I shared a similar sentiment with my wife in an email I that I sent her before that meeting, just a couple of days after revealing my loss of faith to her:

It’s like asking somebody to forget what they’ve seen. We can’t choose to forget. It may happen naturally over time, but we can’t will ourselves to forget. … I could ignore those issues, do everything I can to avoid discovering new ones and pretend that they’re meaningless. Over time, that would probably work and the issues would fade into the background. This is where the choice comes in. I could choose to do that but then I would be living a lie for 5, 10, 20 years, or however long it takes for the issues to fade away. Instead, I’m choosing to face the issues. If Christianity is true, then I think that my journey should lead me to that conclusion.

Amongst the countless hours of reflection over these last two years there have been many occasions where I could identify a practical benefit to the Christian worldview. In an earlier post I acknowledged that there is a strong psychological allure in Christianity, namely in the belief that we are not simply at the mercy of chaos and that, in the end, victory will be ours. It is easy to understand why we would want this to be true. These beliefs, however, can and do extend beyond the conceptual and impact us directly in the here and now. Some would argue that holding unsubstantiated beliefs is in some sense wrong (Clifford’s Principle) – but I disagree. I contend that if holding a belief is clearly the best way to attain a desired outcome then it is completely rational to hold it.

So this is want I want to examine. What benefits does Christianity enable us to realize in this life, and is adherence to the Christian worldview the best way to attain those benefits? In other words, does the cost-benefit analysis favor Christian belief over all other possible mechanisms for leading a fulfilling life? To start, I’ve identified a few benefits and costs to explore. This post is in large part a request for your input on these and for other practical factors that I should consider in subsequent posts.

Benefits (even if the Christian worldview is false)

  1. Stress management (achieved in several different ways)
  2. Better outcomes via the placebo effect
  3. Social fellowship with emphasis on encouragement and support
  4. Reduced death anxiety
  5. Regular reminders to self-evaluate
  6. Sense of having purpose and value which transcends our circumstances
  7. Frequent encouragement to cultivate material contentment and to invest in the lives of others
  8. Diminished sense of loss when loved ones die

Costs (assuming that the Christian worldview is false)

  1. Potentially long or indefinite period of intellectual discomfort until dissonance fades, with strong potential for reemergence later
  2. Misallocation of resources
  3. Improperly or ineffectively acting toward a goal because of a false understanding of influences
  4. Undue pressure to accept potentially disagreeable principles on the basis of authority
  5. Insufficient value placed on earthly life and “temporal things”
  6. Potential for anguish over the fate of “unsaved” loved ones

I crossed out #2 on the costs lists because it would be begging the question. If it turns out that the pragmatic benefits of Christianity outweigh the costs and they are not otherwise attainable then the allocation of resources to the Christian cause should actually be viewed as appropriate. Additionally, I need to point out that I am well aware that many of the benefits listed here are not exclusively found in Christianity. The exploration of alternative mechanisms for realizing those benefits is a crucial element to this series.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t included the afterlife in these lists, see my post on Pascal’s Wager. On the surface, this topic might seem contradictory to the perspective I offered there – namely that we shouldn’t believe something just for the benefit. However, there is a vast difference. Pascal’s Wager is based on a purely speculative outcome obtained via a purely speculative mechanism. Conversely, in this case we can draw upon our experiences, psychology and other research to understand probable outcomes in this life.

This isn’t a tidy, well-planned series. My coverage of these topics will span a long time and will be interspersed between plenty of other posts that I’ve already dreamed up. This isn’t the type of thing where the answers are just sitting out there waiting to be found. There are a lot of factors at play, a lot of psychology to sift through and the end result is enormously subjective. Hopefully your interactions will keep me grounded.

Finally, please do not misinterpret this exercise. I can imagine how this might be psychoanalyzed. I’m not in some dark place looking to reclaim the joy I had when I was a Christian. I don’t know how to compare distinctly unique stages of life, but its possible that I’ve never been happier. Ironically, the motive behind this exercise is very non-Christian: if this life is the only one I have then I should pursue the course which makes the most of it. This journey is about more than collecting facts and discerning the structure of reality. It’s also about navigating life, and I went public with this blog because I knew that my best shot at success was to incorporate a wide variety of insights from others. So please let me know your thoughts on this topic in general, and on the individual benefits and costs of a Christian worldview. Thanks in advance.

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Pascal’s Wager

As far as I can tell, Pascal’s Wager is rendered impotent by one simple thought experiment. As always, please tell me if there’s something I’ve overlooked. If the text is difficult to read, click on the image for the full scale version.

Pascal's Wager

Created at Storyboard That

It’s important to note that this says nothing about the probability of God’s existence, or about the evidence therein. This only shows that the assignment of unsubstantiated attributes or actions to a god do not serve as reasons to believe in that god. Now, if you can provide evidence of those attributes or actions (e.g., that acceptance or rejection of a particular belief actually determines one’s afterlife), well, then you’ve got something.

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A pragmatic approach to free will

PinocchioEarlier this year I engaged in a discussion on doxastic voluntarism where a commenter stated that

“I use freewill to mean we can choose to change the physical sequence of events in our brains. … If we don’t have genuine freewill, then we can’t choose”,

to which I responded with

“Regardless of where one stands on free will, we agree that we engage in something called ‘choosing’. This phenomenon is universal whether we think it is performed by a ghost in the machine or it is just another cog in the chain of prior causes.

This thread of the discussion carried on a little longer without a mutual understanding and eventually ended with me saying that I would try to explain myself in a new post.

So here we are. I currently suspect that we do not have libertarian free will; that is, I doubt that there is an uncaused part of us which controls the act of choosing. This is not a certainty, but I am compelled by the evidence (and the lack of alternative evidence) that this is probably a correct description of reality. So, now that you have received this revelation, you may climb back in bed and curl up in a ball and wait for your death because you are just a cog in a chain of causes. You are no different than the computing device you are currently using. You are a powerless bag of molecules, a meat puppet dangling by the strings of chance. Upon believing that your choices are byproducts of everything else, you could, paradoxically, immediately succumb to a self-defeating fatalism or you could keep reading and take another path. What will you do? Is that even a meaningful question?

This post does not seek to argue whether or not we actually have libertarian free will. The point of this post is to consider the implications for our sense of freedom if we do not possess uncaused agency.

Wait. How do you explain our experience of choice?

Pinocchio_to_lifeGood question. Even though I have no intention here of making the case for an absence of libertarian free will, it is worth considering whether that situation is even possible. I would like to start by reflecting on some observations which are representative of things that we’ve all experienced at one time or another.

The other day the book I was reading included a comment that “…animals don’t seem to want to party, despite what we see in children’s cartoons like Madagascar.” About 30 minutes after reading that – I’m slightly embarrassed to admit – I found myself with the Katy Perry song “Firework” in my head. Upon recognizing this I was surprised, so I stewed on it a bit. This is not a song that I encounter frequently in my listening habits. When I stopped to think about this, a faint scene began to play in my mind. It was an animation of zoo animals performing circus acts. You see, about a week earlier, I spent a couple hours watching Madagascar 3 with my sons. Near the end of the movie, the main characters engage in an elaborate circus performance set to the music of – you guessed it – “Firework”. Unbeknownst to me, the reference to the Madagascar movie in the book I was reading had set in motion a network of activity, drawing on recent experience, that led to the production of a particular song in my head.

When I was a kid my brother would play the “made you flinch” game. It may be a stretch to call it a game, but the rules are basically this: at any time, you can go up to your sibling and act like you’re going to hit them and then stop short. If they react in a defensive way then you have license to actually hit them. Twice. By definition, a flinch is involuntary. After enough bruises you learn to remain vigilant and can suspend your reaction, but eventually you will be caught off-guard again. Control of the flinch is subject to awareness.

As a final example, we’re all well aware that repetition can train us to do things effortlessly and thoughtlessly even though these things required considerable conscious attention during the initial training. This includes actions like reading, riding a bike, driving a car, using a mouse, etc… Even simple math eventually becomes automatic. These well-trained processes seem to lie on the borderlands between the intentional and the unintentional, lying just below the level of consciousness and waffling in and out of our awareness. We sometimes catch ourselves unaware that we had done something, or are doing something.

As these examples show, it is possible for behavior and mental activity to arise outside of our immediate awareness and control. They do not run through the “free will” filter. If we acknowledge that this is possible then it seems reasonable to acknowledge the further possibility that choice itself, our apparent exercise of free will, restraint and deliberation, can also arise through causative factors outside of our awareness. Under this paradigm, we might say that choice is what happens when our brain deals with competing interests. Even choosing to get up and get a drink is in competition with a desire to conserve energy and stay where you are. We have a remarkable feedback system that can recall past experiences and forecast future experiences. These work themselves in to the choice equation and sometimes we can spend considerable time and energy in deliberation as the network keeps pulling up data on both sides of the tug-of-war and reconfiguring itself in response.

The insistence that we make choices independent of causative influence begs the question. It assumes that our identity is fully contained within a singular, unified, independent perspective; in short, a ghost in the machine. Yet, if we ask someone who has flinched whether they chose to flinch then they’re most likely going to say that it wasn’t a choice while at the same time agreeing that they acted. Likewise, we will not deny that it was us who performed automated tasks, even if we weren’t fully aware of what we were doing. So in some cases our action can come from some sort of involuntary aspect of our self. That is, we do not always disassociate our self identity from the actions which were not clearly “under our control”. If we accept that this is a part of who we are and that the line between voluntary and involuntary does not demarcate our identity, then I see no reason why the abolition of libertarian free will should be seen to annihilate the self and render us incapable of choice. Instead, our conception of the “self who chooses” must be revised so that it is consistent with the fact that we already include our involuntary self in our identity. We dispose of the idea that we are a singular, unified and independent soul and find that our identity is multifaceted, distributed and interdependent. Incidentally, a rare group of split-brain patients have offered us a fascinating window into how this works, as do patients who have experienced certain brain injuries (see blindsight, visual agnosia and hemispatial neglect). It appears that this distributed view of the self is the more accurate perspective.

You should believe that you can make choices

pinocchio_donkeyAs demonstrated by the original quote at the top of this post, it is common to see claims that the rejection of libertarian free will is also the rejection of choice. I will address that claim further in the next section, but first I want to briefly review why you should believe that you – this new, complex, multifaceted you – can make choices. When we believe in free will:

  1. We are less likely to harm each other and more likely to help each other (Baumeister 2009).
  2. We are more likely to act fairly and show gratitude (Vohs 2008, MacKenzie 2014; though Zwaan failed to reproduce Vohs).
  3. We show less prejudice against predetermined group membership (Zhao 2014, and accordingly, we show more prejudice against chosen group membership – Brewer 2013).
  4. We are more likely to detect errors and invest in thought (Rigoni 2014, Rigoni 2013, Lynn 2013).
  5. We are less likely to succumb to impulses and more likely to exercise self-control (Rigoni 2012, Alquist 2013, Job 2010).

Given these results, the evidence seems to suggest that we prefer the versions of ourselves who believe in free will. The pragmatist follows by suggesting that the rational thing to do is to believe that we actually possess this freedom.

But I can’t just pretend for the benefits

I completely understand the objection and agree that in the short term we can’t choose our beliefs – but I’m also pretty sure that you don’t have to pretend. Even when you think you can give a reason for your choice we can always just ask why again, and keep asking why until you get to the point of saying “I don’t know”. Eventually you will get there, which means that as far as we can tell from pure introspection, there appears to be something unexplainable going on. This is where we find our “free will”.

It is possible that there actually is no prior cause at the bottom of this search but, as we have seen, it is also possible that the prior causes are simply elusive or inaccessible. If you disagree, please explain to me how this kind of experience would differ from the experience under libertarian free will. I don’t see a difference and, introspectively, we have nothing but our experience to go on. So, if our internal experience regularly lacks a fully formed understanding of causation and if we recognize that we can choose between options, why does it matter whether or not our choice is actually uncaused? Pragmatism takes over when explanations run dry and suggests that instead of looking at causes, we should look at effects. We feel a sense of control and operate with the experience of control and this results in outcomes which accord with our choice. Is this not sufficient?

pinocchio_homeFrom a purely experiential perspective, I make choices. If there is no libertarian free will then I may end up in bed, shut off from the outside world because all prior causes led to that condition. However, it is equally true that all prior causes may lead me to fight off the melancholy and seize the day. We don’t know which is the future path of the causal chain, yet we detect an ability to direct it. The internal experience is the same; our sense of freedom is present no matter what. This is all that matters when it comes to the choices we make. You needn’t sacrifice your freedom on the alter of fatalism. You have a choice.

If you have read this, and you find yourself agreeing with my conclusions, then it is possible that your experiences have now changed you so that you are more inclined to invoke your sense of free will. Ironically, you have just been externally caused to have a greater sense of freedom. Run with it.

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Mind and Cosmos

mind_and_cosmosThomas Nagel’s “Mind & Cosmos”, published in 2012, is almost certainly the book that has garnered the most attention over the last couple years in the God debate; and it has thus become required reading for those of us who are immersed in that milieu. My encounters with the book have primarily come through the off-handed endorsements of Christian apologists. It has become a weapon of choice for defense of the theistic worldview. Conversely, the naturalists were quick to call foul. Most famously, Steven Pinker called it “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Deeply critical negative reviews abounded and those who rushed to Nagel’s defense were quick to suggest that he was, in an ironic twist, being treated like a heretic by the clergy of the church of science. With all of this in mind, my goal was to approach this book via the middle road, as someone seeking truth wherever it may be found. There’s no doubt that I am flawed and biased, but I honestly hope that I came to the text with an open mind.

So what is all the fuss about? Perhaps the subtitle of the book says enough: “Why the materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.” That’s a pretty bold statement which, when viewed through the lens of the God debate, clearly lands in the theist’s camp. Furthermore, students of apologetics will quickly recognize that the content bears a striking resemblance to some of the key objections to naturalism that have been levied by the likes of C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga and J.P. Moreland. The primary difference here is that Nagel’s work does not go on to endorse a theistic solution.

Silver bullets…?

Nagel spends the first two chapters of the book – about 30 pages – outlining the high-level view of his concerns with naturalism. It is here that he introduces us to the “failure of psychophysical reductionism” and identifies three ways in which this failure is realized: in theories of consciousness, cognition, and value – each of which serve as the titles for the substance of the argument in the next three chapters. By this point the territory had grown familiar and I couldn’t help but wonder whether Nagel was fully aware that his thesis mirrors three of the most philosophically prominent arguments for the existence of God. He cites contemporary secular philosophers, such as Sharon Street, as his primary interlocutors yet on the theistic side we get little more than a single footnote reference to Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies”. Whereas the apologetic versions of these arguments essentially all boil down to “Nature cannot produce (or access) X, thus God.”, Nagel is affirming everything before the comma and leaving everything after as an open question; though he does prod us toward accepting the possibility of an impersonal teleological force. Nevertheless, allow me to summarize his points and show how they couple into the case for theism.

Consciousness

What it's like to be a batHere we find Nagel reaffirming ‘the hard problem of consciousness’, as he has done in the past. In his 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” he closed with the statement that “it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective.” 38 years later, this chapter takes it a step farther and suggests that the subjective cannot be reduced to the physical:

“if Ψ [a mental event] really is Φ [a physical event] in this sense, and nothing else, then Φ [a physical event] by itself, once its physical properties are understood, should likewise be sufficient for the taste of sugar, the feeling of pain, or whatever it is supposed to be identical with. But it doesn’t seem to be. It seems conceivable, for any Φ [physical event], that there should be Φ [a physical event] without any experience at all” (pg 41).

In the next section this conclusion is then applied to the evolutionary story:

“Since a purely materialist explanation cannot do this [explain the appearance of conscious organisms], the materialist version of evolutionary theory cannot be the whole truth” (pg 45).

To put it briefly, the ‘hard problem’ amounts to the difficulty we have in translating the experiential (qualia) to the descriptive, and it seems clear that any physical explanation is inherently descriptive. To this the theist agrees and then asks, “What now?” The God answer has most notably been advanced by Richard Swinburne (see The Existence of God) and J.P. Moreland (see Consciousness and the Existence of God).

Disclaimer: These two books are on my list but I have not yet read them and am working from the content available online. Reader beware (even though I may have stumbled into full versions of the texts).

These heavyweights of Christian philosophy propose that consciousness is not only incompatible with a purely physical cause but that its very nature begs for a personal cause that is itself conscious. Why? To quote Moreland,

“on a theistic metaphysic, one already has an instance of consciousness and other mental entities, e.g. an unembodied mind, in God. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that finite consciousness or other mental entities should exist in the world. However, on a naturalist view, mental entities are so strange and out of place that their existence (or regular correlation with physical entities) defies adequate explanation. There appear to be two realms operating in causal harmony and theism provides the best explanation of this fact.”

Swinburne starts with the same assumption and then makes this being personal and gives him motivation for creating us by appealing to the moral capacity of conscious beings, wherein beings which can choose to do good are a valuable addition to the universe. Good activities include relationship and love and so the origin of consciousness should have these qualities as well.

If we grant that consciousness cannot arise from the physical then I honestly think I would favor the apologist’s proposition. If consciousness truly is something fundamentally significant and distinct from physical reality then explaining its origin in terms of an advanced, transcendent consciousness seems more sensible than positing a disinterested or unintentional source. This may not get us to a particular formulation of what that transcendent consciousness is, but it leads the way to further discussion. Regardless, the obstacle lies in that first clause – in establishing the failure of the naturalist account.

Cognition

“We take ourselves to have the capacity to form true beliefs … We don’t take these capacities to be infallible, but we think they are often reliable, in an objective sense, … human life assumes that there is a real world … and that there are norms of thought which, if we follow them, will tend to lead us toward the correct answers. It assumes that to follow those norms is to respond correctly … It is difficult to make sense of all this in traditional naturalistic terms.” (pg 72)

Nagel goes on to grant that it does make sense from an evolutionary perspective for our faculties to accurately represent the world. Even more, he cogently describes the standard evolutionary explanation for cognition through the adaptive benefits of the mental faculties that enable us to generalize and symbolize and, at the end, acknowledges that the story as a whole is not impossible. Section 3 then commences with the deconstruction.

The first criticism raised is the circularity of reliance on our reasoning. He points out – and correctly so, in my opinion – that when we evaluate the evolutionary story and find it to be an adequate explanation of our capacity for reason, we are in fact relying on that very explanation in the process. The second shot is aimed at our ability to discern truth. Whereas consciousness may render a generally accurate picture of our immediate environment, reason allows us to step out of our subjectivity and compare and contrast data from an objective standpoint to locate truth. The reasons why we might see this as an obstacle to physical explanation are less clear and largely intuitive: “it does seem to be something that cannot be given a purely physical analysis and therefore, … cannot be given a purely physical explanation.”

CS-LewisNot long ago I read C.S. Lewis’ Miracles. The first half of the book says very little about miracles and purposes instead to set the stage for the allowance of the supernatural. His central argument for the existence of something which transcends the material was an examination of Reason and our ability to utilize it. This has come to be known as the argument from reason (which is actively defended by Victor Reppert at dangerousidea.blogspot.com). The argument can be summarized as “How can the rational come from the irrational?” It builds upon our intuition, crafted by our experience, that the unconscious world is generally not oriented toward truth. Nothing in random natural processes seems to work toward discerning correctness. Why should evolution have ended up with something that did?

Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism argues the same position with a bit more philosophical depth and with the addition of the circularity observation that Nagel poses. I already discussed this argument a bit in a review of “Where the Conflict Really Lies”, so I won’t rehash that here. Regardless, both Lewis and Plantinga go on to suggest that if reason cannot be explained by the physical realm then the most sensible conclusion is that its presence in our world has its origin with something that is itself capable of reason, and which values rationality, and thus bestows that value upon us. Again, I find that this is a reasonable option if we agree that rationality necessarily transcends the physical. As before, it may not be the only conclusion but it is a strong and viable candidate.

Value

Nagel’s final concern with the physicalist paradigm rests on value realism. His opening section again acknowledges that the target, this time the subjectivist account of value, is “not flagrantly implausible.” The subsequent section continues to discuss the distinction between subjectivism and value realism and then interestingly closes with a concession about the case for value realism:

“There is no crucial experiment that will establish or refute realism about value… Positive support for realism can come only from the fruitfulness of evaluative and moral thought in producing results, including corrections of beliefs formerly widely held and the development of new and improved methods and arguments over time. The realist interpretation of what we are doing in thinking about these things can carry conviction only if it is a better account than the subjectivist or social-constructivist alternative, and that is always going to be a comparative question and a matter of judgment.” (pg 104-105)

This seems to indicate that he thinks that our recognition of progress is the best indicator of value realism; but he also recognizes that the identification of progress is itself subjective. Ultimately Nagel grants that his grounding for the objectivity of value is purely an intuitive feeling and, as such, very little time is spent defending that conclusion. Instead, Nagel spends the next couple chapters outlining his agreement with Sharon Street in her proposal that a purely Darwinian account of evolution is incompatible with value realism (see A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value).

It’s probably painfully obvious how this relates to the theistic worldview. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I propose that the moral argument is among the two or three most important and widespread arguments for God’s existence. It was a favorite of C.S. Lewis, and nearly every apologist thereafter. Francis Collins indicated that it was the key factor in his conversion. Briefly, the moral argument says that moral value exists independent of our opinion. Some things, like the oft cited “torturing babies for fun”, are truly wrong regardless of what we think. The theists then take the next step and ask where these moral truths come from. They do not appear to be a material part of the world and yet regularly guide our actions and serve as the explanatory foundation of our reasoning – which is the key to the theists proposition. When we keep asking why, we will usually eventually hit a wall made entirely of value judgments. If the answers to the “why” questions are not found in the answers to the “how” questions, and we are the only part of the physical realm which seems to care about the “why”, then the origin of those values is reasonably accounted for in something capable of valuing – something intentional and teleologically motivated.

For the sake of argument, lets grant the assumption of moral realism. When I take this stance, I am compelled to agree with the problems it poses for a undirected evolutionary account of our moral disposition. As I thus proceed to examine the alternative explanations for its existence, here again I find myself appreciating the theistic answer. Why? Because value seems to be intrinsically tied to intention, and intention infers purpose and an agent pursuing that purpose. If value is independent of humanity then it makes sense that it be grounded in something that retains intention and purpose. Without this, it would seem, value loses its value.

…or misfires?

But, in the end, I am unpersuaded. As indicated by the quotes from the book, the rejection of the naturalist explanation appears to be intuitively driven speculation on what is possible within the framework. Yes, the naturalist position on these topics is also speculative, but it is utilizing the world as we know it and trying to minimize additional assumptions. Accordingly, there are several points of momentum carrying the naturalist explanation, and I contend that the current is strong:

  1. There is a continuum of mental faculties in the animal kingdom. It seems that we can incrementally walk down the chain of neural complexity until the brain essentially becomes a scrutable set of chemical reactions. There is no obvious reason why we should draw a line somewhere and start assigning significance.
  2. Neuroscience has made it abundantly clear that the mental is, at the very least, co-dependent on physical aspects of the brain. If this much is indisputable then it seems extraneous to postulate something more when there is a readily identifiable explanation for our lack of complete understanding; namely the complexity and inaccessibility of the living brain. The insistence that qualia cannot be reduced to the physical seems to be begging the question. See my brief comment on the ontology of qualia for more on the relation between the physical and the mental.
  3. The naturalist program hinges on regularity. So far, in the course of history, we have identified regularities in the underlying explanation of nearly everything and the only exceptions bear the distinction of unresolved complexity – we see the regularity of the underlying parts, but have not unraveled their cumulative behavior. We have not yet, to my knowledge, identified anything which is simple yet unpredictably irregular. Is it not reasonable to suspect that this trend will continue? If there truly is a teleology shaping the world then it is an odd coincidence that it only manifests within instances of unresolved complexity.
  4. Aside from the possibility that the physical parameters of the universe were fine-tuned at its birth, the universe as a whole does not obviously have the appearance of one in which a powerful, directive force or being is actively working toward the goal of consciousness, cognition and value. Conversely, the universe is overwhelmingly void of these things and seems indifferent to their permanence. It is conceivable that there are universes in which the life that sustains consciousness, cognition and value is less fragile, or in which the environment better supports that life. If Nagel’s teleologic force is constrained in its capabilities, or if I have misapprehended the possible set of life valuing universes, then this objection would disappear.

Accordingly, I simply do not see how a non-teleological evolutionary theory fails to enable consciousness, cognition and value. Physical reproduction is inherently dependent on the acquisition and manipulation of material that is external to the replicating being. A reproductive process which never replenished or adopted outside material would quickly come to an end. This means that accurate interaction with the outside world is imperative to reproductive success. Any system which does this better than its ancestor is more likely to flourish. Accordingly, what may have started as the most simple of interactive functions would be expected to improve as change creeps in. Eventually, the combination of consciousness and cognition yields the coordination of multiple external stimuli, an increased sample size by incorporating past experience, the projection of the past to the future to guide anticipatory motor control, and a generally accurate inference of the external world beyond our immediate perception. The associative machinery in our brain builds links based on real world input and so, when those links strengthen one interpretation over another, we favor it as truth. As more experience and information is added to those links the probabilities of aligning with truth increases and we gain an advantage in navigating the world. Finally, add the development of an innate bias toward that which is most beneficial to our survival and reproduction and out pops “value”. To top it all off, if those values are rooted in a common ancestry then they will be perceptually objective to the descendents.

The most inescapable criticism of this “just-so story” lies within the circularity of the naturalistic origins of our capacity to reason. I contend, however, that this is not limited to the naturalist. Everybody, it would seem, is trapped in this vicious circle. We necessarily start from a position of pragmatic reliance on our rational capacities and form our theory of its origin thereafter. Where the naturalist says “it’s reliable because it benefits survival”, the theist says “it’s reliable because God would not deceive”. Both parties have assumed the reliability of their cognition as a prerequisite to determining why it is reliable.

There is also definitely an intuitive appeal to the doubt that rationality can in some way arise from the irrational. Furthermore, this isn’t a concern that the naturalist can expunge with new evidence and further discovery. If the naturalistic explanation is true then this objection is here to stay and will only be reinforced as we learn more. I do not see, however, why it necessarily renders the story invalid. If all the evidence falls in line then we just have to accept where it points. Diverging from the evidence is a far less attractive option.

I commend Nagel for his continued willingness to think outside the box, go against the grain and challenge our assumptions. We all need to do this on a regular basis and society will never progress without those select few who break from the status quo. Even so, those ventures are only successful if they correspond with the reality of our world. It’s possible that I am among the masses who have been caught up in a false current and I am simply unable to see that I have been blinded to the faults of the “materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature” but, if that is so, then Mind & Cosmos has done nothing to snatch me from the rapids.

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We are all human

And Now for Something Completely Different…

Sometimes when we bury ourselves in the ruminations of the “intellectual elite”, we can lose sight of the fact that they are no less human than we are. It’s good to have the occasional reminder that we’re all in this together and that there’s nothing particularly magical about the words that come from any one person.

Plantinga gets hot

Dawkins eats crow

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My Ontology – Part 2: Mind-dependence

Open MindIn Part 1 I laid the foundations for my ontological framework and came to the conclusion that my position is currently best categorized as that of conceptualism. In this post I would like to dig into this deeper and examine some of the key issues surrounding the topic of mind-dependence and some of the arguments against the conceptualist view. What does it mean to say that a mind-dependent thing (hereafter referred to as a concept) exists? Some may initially balk at the prospect that concepts actually do exist in some sense, but I think our experience infers our acceptance of this proposition on a regular basis. I suggested in Part 1 that we often include concepts when we speak of things which exist. In addition, we routinely say that we “have an idea” and we can recognize the feeling of “getting it” when an explanation “sinks in”. We have a word “on the tip of our tongue” when we are aware of the concept but unable to express it. A placebo can change our well-being. It seems to me that these are all manifestations of concepts.

In the entry on Platonism, the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy states that “[conceptualism] has serious problems and not very many people endorse it.” Chris Swoyer suggests that conceptualism warrants renewed consideration and starts by noting that “Somewhere in the twentieth century… conceptualism fell off the map….it’s surprising it continues to receive even the perfunctory nod it often gets…”. As an alternative many either come to accept that these things I call concepts are actually mind-independent (realists) or that they don’t exist at all (nominalists). I hope that in this post I am able to make the case that conceptualism has been overlooked. Of course, it is also possible that somebody will come along and straighten me out and make me realize that I’m actually a nominalist or a realist; but we won’t know unless we try.

A naturalist account of concepts

As it currently stands, I find that the naturalist account of reality is more probably true than the Christian (or theistic) perspective I once held. This means that I should be able to reconcile naturalism with the ontology that I have proposed. The naturalist position unashamedly equates the mind with the brain, and so the existence of concepts must be defined within that context.

neuronsTo start this exploration, I want to re-iterate a perspective that I have offered before. In Part 1 of my epistemology, I proposed that logical reasoning can be explained as a process of mapping relations between experiences (and the labels assigned to those related portions of our experiences) and in the end I came to the conclusion that I am an empiricist. Similarly, in Part 1 of this series, I argued that experiences define our knowledge of objects and thus inform our ontology. Taken as a whole, this perspective appears to be highly compatible with our modern understanding of the brain. Allow me to try and briefly outline this congruence.

First, we are well aware that the brain is highly associative. We regularly employ mnemonic devices to improve our recall, and basic introspection reveals how our train of thought tends to follow along paths which relate concepts. Second, we know that the brain is a somewhat flexible configuration of what is very roughly estimated to be 100,000,000,000 neurons and 1,000,000,000,000,000 synaptic connections, where by “flexible” I mean that the connections can change. The neurons and synapses combine to form neural networks that, as far as we can tell, serve to encode sensation and train our response. Sense data, both external and internal interfaces with the brain and causes the relevant neural networks to update accordingly. Obviously all of this is a rather gross simplification and so, when coupled with the fact that my knowledge of neuroscience is both limited and informal, you would be wise to investigate these things further on your own. Regardless, all of this leads me to a rather simple definition of a mental concept: with each experience our brains are modified with a “shadow” of the sense data from that experience. These shadows are linked with each other (perhaps even shared in some way) when the sense data is phenomenally or temporally similar. Symbols associated with these experiences become linked into the networks, tying words into the mesh. The result is a massive network of neural relations that can be broken into symbolically identifiable segments, where each segment represents a discreet aspect of one or more experiences. This defines a concept. They can be linked to define new, more complex concepts, or dissected to define simpler concepts. The following TED talk (20 min) offers a glimpse into this amazing network.

So, to put it simply, concepts are patterns in the brain. These patterns are byproducts of our experiences and genetics, and persist with varying fidelity. As a result, they are unique to each individual. The sensory encoding process for humankind, however, is generally the same. The resulting patterns then share enough commonality, and relations to symbols, that we are able to agree on the external reality from which they were formed. We communicate this to each other primarily through the use of the word symbols linked to the concepts.

Now lets take this idea to its natural conclusion. If mind-dependent things are really just patterns in the brain, then what is this thing that we are calling a pattern? As I see it, there are two options under this framework: either patterns are themselves something independent of the mind and are a foundational part of all concepts, or patterns are themselves patterns. The first seems to be a theoretical leap based on nothing but the fact that we’ve hit the end of our rope. Alternatively, the second option puts us into an interminable self-referential loop (aka, recursion). While there is something disquieting about this, I am at a loss to explain why it is in any sense invalid. In fact, this may be the only kind of infinite that exists. As a software engineer, I myself have on rare occasion created these interminable self-referential loops. There are other reasons to prefer the self-referential option. For one, we intuitively identify a pattern as an abstract object. It only makes sense, then, that it would remain as such. Recursion also makes sense when you consider the neurophysiology outlined above. If concepts exist within a massive web of interconnectivity, then the potential for self-reference should come as no surprise. I have here breached a rather massive topic to which many are devoting entire lives, yet I shall leave it at that. It is only necessary at this time to define the foundational ontology of concepts for the purpose of further scrutiny.

Objective relations

Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse

The Stanford article on platonism suggests that one of the stronger objections to conceptualism can be summarized as follows: “…relational claims seem to be objective; e.g., the fact that Mount Everest is taller than Mont Blanc is a fact that holds independently of us; but conceptualism about universals entails that if we all died, it would no longer be true that Mount Everest bears the taller than relation to Mont Blanc, because that relation would no longer exist.”

I may have fried a few neurons thinking about this one. I was at first inclined to suggest that this was no different than my thought experiment in Part 1, where I proposed that the only reason the story of Paul Bunyan seems to survive the death of its lone storytellers is because the concept of the story remains in my mind. Similarly, I thought, the “taller than” relation (and similar relations) only appear to be objective because the concept remains in our mind when we consider the example. It then occurred to me, however, that there is a key difference to be taken into account. The “taller than” relation would seem to be clearly discoverable without having ever been transferred from another mind. In some sense, it appears that the relation is not completely mind-dependent.

So I started working from the ground up. I asked myself what it means when we say that something is “taller than”. I concluded that we are expressing a perceived difference in the amount of space the objects occupy in the vertical dimension. This space is a quantifiable, observable object. So the “taller than” relation actually has a referent – the space that is occupied by the taller object and is not occupied by the shorter object. I am venturing to propose that this holds for all objective relations. For example, “brighter than” refers to the photons emitted by the brighter object which are in excess of the photons emitted by the dimmer object. “Faster than” refers to the change in space-time covered by the faster object that isn’t covered by the slower object. The examples could go on and on. If you have a counter-example of an objective relation that has no referent in the physical world (i.e., space / time / matter / energy), please send it my way.

What does this mean? It means that objective relations are very much like concrete particulars and their corresponding universals. The particulars are differences which correspond to quantitatively identifiable aspects of the physical world that we experience. These experiences are then linked together in generalizations that we assign labels. The “taller than” relation is an effective and convenient shorthand for expressing differences in the amount of vertical space occupied by objects, just as calling something a table is an effective and convenient shorthand for referring to all our past experiences of similar objects. So it would seem that the ontology of objective relations should be viewed no differently. If all minds are extinguished then the universal concept of a table no longer exists, but the particular table objects remain. Likewise, the generalized concept of a “taller than” relation does in fact disappear when all minds are extinguished, but the particular instances of physical differences do not.

The problem of universals

If I have thus far explained myself well, it should already be obvious that I see universals as concepts in the mind. Even so, it would be careless for me to summarily dismiss it on that note. Conceptualism, some say, doesn’t address the problem of universals. To quote from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Conceptualism’s appeal to concept application must concern only correct concept application. As such, it is fair to ask, “What makes it the case that the concept red is rightly applied to both a and b, but not of some third individual, c?” To treat this fact as brute and inexplicable is to revert to problematic Predicate Nominalism. So it seems the Conceptualist must say that the concept red applies to a and b, but not c, because a and b share a common feature, a feature c lacks. Otherwise, the application of red is unconstrained by the individuals to which it applies. But simply noting that a and b resemble each other isn’t going to help, because that just is the fact we originally sought to explain, put differently. The Conceptualist might now say that a and b share a property. But if this isn’t to amount to a restatement of the original datum, it must now be interpreted as the claim that some entity is in both a and b. That, of course, turns our supposed Conceptualist strategy back into Realism. Critics say Conceptualism solves no problems on its own. In trying to ground our right to predicate the concept red of a and b, we are driven back to facts about a and b themselves and that leaves Conceptualism as an unstable position. It teeters back and forth between Realism, on the one hand, and Nominalism, on the other.

I suspect that this objection is levied against a form of conceptualism in which concepts are not formed through experience. Allow me to try using the proposed framework to answer the key question of this objection: “What makes it the case that the concept red is rightly applied to both a and b, but not of some third individual, c?” Answer: There is a frequency range in the electromagnetic spectrum for which objects a and b emit or reflect light and object c does not. The sensory input from electromagnetic waves in that range is associated with neural structures that collectively form the concept of redness, and we call this concept “red” because those structures have further associations with the word “red”. The sensory input from object c does not create the same associations and so the concept of “red” is not applied to it. At the risk of sounding pompous, it seems to me that the discussion ends there. Have I missed something?

“Red”, as a universal, can be easily associated with particulars, namely the electromagnetic waves in a certain frequency range. When the universal in question is the type which is a categorization of particulars (e.g., red, table, chair, etc…), the application of conceptualism is clear – the universal is the concept that links our experiences of the particulars together. There are other types of universals, however, which assign properties to objects and that have no obvious referent. We might say that something is hot, flat, smooth or loud. How do these types of universal properties fit into the conceptualist framework? The answer lies in the discussion of relations above. The similarity between relations and these types of property universals becomes clear upon consideration of what these properties are really saying. When we say that something is hot or cold, flat or steep, smooth or sharp, or loud or quiet, we are in fact expression a relation to the norm, or a relation to other spatially or temporally nearby objects. If we’re standing in a walk-in freezer then we might say that an object at 10° C is warm, but we might say that the same object is cold if we are in a stifling equatorial jungle. A knife is sharp because most objects don’t have edges that cut, but a knife can be dull if it doesn’t cut like it used to. These are all relations and, as previously discussed, that means that they all have particular referents in the physical world from which the experiences combine to form concepts.

Qualia

Mary the color scientist 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.Frank Jackson, Epiphenomenal Qualia (1982)

The “knowledge of” entails a completely different kind of pattern in the brain than does the “experience of”. Setting aside the likelihood that color concepts do not consist of the exact same pattern in each person, the knowledge that Mary possesses is only present in the form of the patterns of the information she has acquired through her research. According to the story, the pattern which results from the stimulus of the wavelengths themselves was never realized. So, yes, she does “learn” something new. Now, we could perhaps propose that Mary not only knows how to translate sensory experience into neurophysiology but also has the incredible ability to manipulate her own neurology accordingly. In this case, I would propose that the problem has gone away. Mary has induced the experience of color independent of the actual visual reception of color. She would now have the patterns of color experience encoded in her brain and will thus have created the qualia in the same way that actually seeing it would have.

Who cares?

Door to...

Good question. As I noted at the outset, it wasn’t long ago that I would have considered these musings to be pointless and absurd. What I’ve come to find, however, is that this all actually plays a significant role in the God debate. Why? Because if some type of realism is true, and it can be said that even some small subset of abstract objects or universals exist on their own, then we have accepted the independent existence of the immaterial. This in itself is not necessarily troublesome for the naturalist position. After all, science is in the business of discovering new aspects of “nature” that were previously mysterious. There does seem to be a difference this time, though. If these things exist, and we know about them, then the implication is that we have accessed them in some non-empirical way. This accessibility elevates the mind to a privileged position which gives it access to things in a way that isn’t found anywhere else in nature. Furthermore, the current reckoning of the naturalist position would infer that this special access came about as the result of blind evolutionary forces acting on material that didn’t yet have any interface with these things. Is that just a coincidence?

To the theist, this is the gateway to further interrogation into the immaterial realm (God, soul, spirit, free will, etc…). To the naturalist, this is a crack in the door that was supposed to have been closed. While it may not serve as evidence for God, it would suggest that there is more to reality than the naturalist is typically willing to grant. There’s no telling what all lies behind that door. Of course, this potential conflict is no reason to avoid the questions and shun sensible answers. We should pursue truth wherever it may lead.

With that in mind, you may have noticed that I have skirted some of the big questions. I am ending this two part series having merely outlined my perspective on what is means to say that something exists while showing how, within the conceptualist paradigm, there does not appear to be any problem reconciling the existence of mind-dependent objects with a naturalistic account of reality. By aligning myself with conceptualism I have inferred that abstract objects exist only by virtue of their mind-dependence, but I have avoided asking whether or not some things (morality, mathematics and, of course, God) are truly mind-independent. That said, I believe that this framework presents a coherent mechanism by which we may suggest that they are mind-dependent. Even so, those will have to be addressed another time; perhaps after much more contemplation. I do not yet feel comfortable with any one position on these, among others, and this should not be a surprise. We have been debating these things for centuries. In the end, I will openly concede that a deep dive into those topics, or a persuasive refutation of my reasoning here, could potentially turn this entire framework on its head. And that is where you come in. Please, dear reader, tell me why I’m wrong.

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