Travelling North

Article – Do I Think?


Do I think?

From time to time I ask myself the question “What do I think about ….?”  It is form of questioning that has led to various ideas and explorations, some of which have finished up as contributions to this blog.  However, right now I have found myself caught up in a really challenging topic – instead of thinking about some particular issue I have started to explore the question “What do I think about thinking?”  In many ways, I wish I had never started on examining this particular question – it is, to use that well-worn phrase “way above my pay grade”.  However, I have been thinking about thinking, and although I don’t seem to have understood much there is a possibility that my initial comments will lead to someone getting back to me with a more reasoned analysis.  So, here goes!!

It all started with Thomas Nagel and his book Mind and Cosmos.  Nagel is a university professor of philosophy at New York University, but you would think, given the howls of anger and criticism that he has aroused, that he might just have been a first year student there.  All that anger was aroused because he has argued against the possibility of the physical sciences eventually coming up with a ‘theory of everything’.  His concern is with the ability of these sciences to deal with mind and consciousness.  The core of his view seems to be that: “The physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves as parts of the objective spatio-temporal order – our structure and behavior in space and time – but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view.”

If that had been all that he had said, the howls would not have been so loud.  However, Nagel is his own worst enemy.  Although he is not able to tell us what kind of approach might help us understand the nature of our minds as subjectively experiences, he does appear to support two additional propositions.  The first of these is that the development of mind can be seen as demonstrating some teleological principles, that the path of development of mind and consciousness is determined by such development taking place in order to realise certain goals (even though it is not clear as to what those goals might be, or how such a teleological process takes place).  Second, while it is not clear what a theory of the mind might be like, he argues that a reductionist theory (in his eyes a scientific theory) will not explain the experience of consciousness.

Are these two propositions inevitable, or even required?  As I see it, there is no need to impute a teleological principle.  Natural selection as a principle will always ensure that an alternative that gives advantage wins out over the long term:  consciousness, the ability to think, to plan and all that goes with consciousness clearly gives advantage.  This is no evolution towards some goal; it is simply evolution that favours whatever works better!  Did I say ‘works better’?  Well, we are certainly demonstrating that we can do better than a lot of species, to the point of eliminating many of them and destroying the ecosystems that support them.  Is that better?  Better for us?  In the short term?  Perhaps?

The second proposition is more tricky.  I have little doubt that we will, in time, be able to map brain processes corresponding to mental activities, activities considered in the broadest way possible.  These will range from our ability to make sense of sensory perceptions, through to our ability to reason.  At present it looks as though this will be like a computer puzzle – which neurons do what for each mental activity we examine.  To achieve such an understanding looks almost impossibly difficult now, but not actually impossible.  However, to describe the functions of the brain while I am typing, for example, does not also tell you what it is like to be experiencing typing, and that is the bit where I think Nagel’s discussion has a point:  can we describe and understand subjective experiences, rather than the physical processes that accompany them?  Of course, I have to note that not all of science is materialist science:  mathematics is a particularly important example.  However, science, materialist or not, has not yet offered me any prospect of a window into my subjective experiences of living.  Like Nagel, I think it is worth questioning as to whether it will ever be possible to do so.

There are some prior explanations of the subjective world we can discount.  There is no reason to continue to believe that there is a person ‘inside’ a person, as it were, a controller running us from the inside (a homunculi).  Quite apart from the logical problems this creates (it quickly ends up in one of those discussions about the reduction ad absurdum fallacy:  if there is some inside running things, what is running the ‘person’ inside? another person inside that person … and so it goes on).  Similarly, apart from the credulous, (and some unusual thinkers like Theilard de Chardin), there seems little reason to continue to argue for the existence of a ‘soul’ that has some form of existence independent of the body it inhabits:  such religious explanations seem have had their day once cold hard reason is applied.

Nagel makes sense to me in this way:  I live in a world where there are a number of elements of my subjective experience that I am unable to see how they could be explained scientifically.  Perhaps some examples would help.  There are three that come to mind.

First, there are a number of immaterial criteria that are part of my universe – things to do with aesthetics, with wonder, with imagination.  These have no counterpart in the material world (even if things in the material world may evoke such subjective responses).  Such criteria are not driven by sensory data, they are my way of making sense of the world around me – they are part of my subjective experience.  I can talk about them with others, but I am unable to explain them as simply arising from interactions with the world around me.  That funny phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is right – my sense of beauty is mine, and not a junction of facial symmetry or some similar universal physical criteria.  These subjective criteria are doubly puzzling, as they are both part of my subjective experience of the world, but they are also criteria that are interwoven with the cultural world that surrounds me.  They are part of my social as well as my subjective world, and the social sciences remain impervious to forms of analysis that lead to theories like those in the physical sciences.

Second, there are all sorts of principles that guide how I live, and how I respond to and respect others.  It has been fashionable to explain some moral principles as ‘justified’ by the way in which they support the continuing existence of our species, or more specifically of my genes.  Selfishness might seem to support the view that this is a principle (everyone for him or her self) that might have a genetic basis:  well, perhaps there is an argument to be made.  However, altruism is much harder to explain in that way.  Moreover, tying moral principles back to genetics seems to me to reduce their import.  Our moral principles have emerged over centuries, through tried and tested analysis and debate.  They are part of our cultural and social heritage.

Third, there is language itself:  it is language that allows us to describe the world around us, and to describe how it feels to us; and it is language that has allowed us to create a vast shared world we subjectively experience.  Chomsky and others have argued that language has an underlying structure that might be encoded in our genetic blueprint.  However, that underlying structure simply makes language possible.  It does not explain the power of language, it ability to transcend any individual’s perceptions, and to create a rich and complex human culture:  a culture we have to learn, rather than simply absorb.

Perhaps Nagel isn’t as naïve as his critics suggest.  There may be some matters to do with consciousness and subjective experience that are not going to be understood by science, or at least by science as we know it today.  Cultural and social studies (rather than cultural and social sciences) seem a long way from having the properties of the materialist world.

However, just as I was beginning to get comfortable with this view of things, I started to read some other writers whose views were very different.

Steven Pinker has long argued for the importance of reason, and the need to toss away faith based views of the world.  He suggests that science has two fundamental characteristics.  First, it is concerned with intelligibility, by which he means that any explanation we make of the world around us must be based on some basic principles.  Second, those principles, and the conclusions we draw based on those principles, must be verified by empirical tests.  This second characteristic of science requires hard work, acceptance is hard won, and there is always the risk that empirical testing down the track will demonstrate that the principles derived in the past no longer are adequate to make sense of the phenomena we are observing (indeed, it was Popper who made it clear that task of empirical tests is to see if we can disprove an hypothesis).

Steven Pinker summarised this view in an article written in a recent issue of the New Republic (on August 6, 2013).  It seemed to me on first reading that this would cut out such things as lived experience, or the concept of beauty, for example.  I could not imagine what rational principles could be used, or what empirical tests could be applied that weren’t both subjective and personal.  Pinker doesn’t agree, of course.  He comments, for example that “The visual arts could avail themselves of the explosion of knowledge in vision science, including the perception of color, shape, texture, and lighting, and the evolutionary aesthetics of faces and landscapes.”  Yes, we are increasing our understanding of colour, texture and lighting; in addition we are able to understand why symmetries in appearance have a positive effect.  Does this answer aesthetic questions?:  why El Greco’s ‘stretched’ figures are so moving, or, more to the point, why I find so much pleasure in paintings by John Brack or Kathe Kollwitz, or why I am drawn to Francis Bacon’s work.  He didn’t convince me on that.

Then I read Michael Graziano’s thoughts about attention.  He has developed what he calls an ‘attention schemata theory’, and is arguing that what we call consciousness is actually a mental model of what it is to which we are paying attention.  Why do we need to do this?  He argues that we are flooded with data through the senses, and therefore we need to be able to concentrate on critical data, that we need to ‘pay attention’.  The act of paying attention leads to the development of models of those things on which we focus.  At some point in evolution, having such models led to the possibility of a state of awareness.  The recognition that ‘I am aware of something’.

Once you are aware of paying attention, then things could keep developing.  Graziano goes on to argue (the quote comes from “How the light gets out”), Aeon, 23 August 2013):

“And then what? Just as fins evolved into limbs and then into wings, the capacity for awareness probably changed and took on new functions over time. For example, the attention schema might have allowed the brain to integrate information on a massive new scale. If you are attending to an apple, a decent model of that state would require representations of yourself, the apple, and the complicated process of attention that links the two. An internal model of attention therefore collates data from many separate domains. In so doing, it unlocks enormous potential for integrating information, for seeing larger patterns, and even for understanding the relationship between oneself and the outside world.”

It is a compelling story, but to me this is a theory that is based on seeing the mind as a processor, attending to data, and being aware of this.  Surely we are more than information processors.  Where do other abilities come from?  This is no longer a question about aesthetics, but it is also a question about creativity.

This reminded me of an earlier article I had read, an essay on ‘The normal well-tempered mind’ written by Daniel Dennett, another scourge of non-scientists and wooly thinkers (the article was in The Edge, 12 January, 2013).  I recalled this article because his essay was prompted by concerns over the increasing acceptance of the mind being like a computer.  As he saw it, computers are controlled devices, working within highly structured paths, and unable to be innovative on how they tackle a problem.  In looking at the nature of the mind, he put forward what he described as a ‘wild’ idea:  his idea was that the brain’s neurons might be able to be adventurous, free, be feral even.  Such freedom would help us understand our capacity to be creative and imaginative (as well, he suggests, our tendency to obsessions and other mental illnesses).

Dennett’s musings led him to a very interesting conclusion.  If our neurons have the capability to be a bit wild, then we may need a different form of analysis to make sense of how the mind works, and what we mean by consciousness.  He has not come to same conclusion as Nagel:  this is still a form of scientific understanding, but very different from the physical models that are so much in vogue today.  He suggests that the consequence of his view that we might have these slightly wild neurons was:

“We got risky brains that are much riskier than the brains of other mammals even, even more risky than the brains of chimpanzees, and that this could be partly a matter of a few simple mutations in control genes that release some of the innate competitive talent that is still there in the genomes of the individual neurons. But I don’t think that genetics is the level to explain this. You need culture to explain it.”

This, I speculate, is a response to our invention of culture; culture creates a whole new biosphere, in effect, a whole new cultural sphere of activity where there’s opportunities that don’t exist for any other brain tissues in any other creatures, and that this exploration of this space of cultural possibility is what we need to do to explain how the mind works.”

I remain confused about where this leads.  I think that Dennett is arguing that we need a science of culture to help us understand the nature of consciousness.  If so, then I am still not yet convinced that this is necessary, or even possible.

This has been a real intellectual struggle for me.  Have Dennett, Pinker and Graziano answered Nagel, and put him in his place?  I don’t think so.  Each helps us better understand so much more about our physical selves.  But that understanding still leaves a great deal more that has not been addressed satisfactorily, at least for now.  Perhaps their work represents stepping stones along a scientific path that will, one day, give us a theory of everything.  Today, that end seems a long way off, and I feel it still seems very unlikely.  I am not religious.  I am not a teleologist.  I just think that somehow along the path of evolution we have freed ourselves from being driven by our material selves to have the possibility of subjective experience, of consciousness.

Perhaps I should leave all this to better minds than mine.  As far as my concerns are worth considering, I would assert that consciousness is a precious gift, one that has allowed us to both create a cultural world in which we live, and at the same time to act on the physical world in a way that no other creature has been able.  At the same time it is a gift that brings great responsibilities:  the obligation that comes with the gift of consciousness and subjective experience is to know what we do to others and to the world around us.  Understanding that through rational analysis is one way to meet our obligations, but only one.  We should aspire to more.

November 2013

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