Archive for the ‘metaphysics’ Category

Making the “Hard Problem” of consciousness disappear

January 22, 2007

I read this article in Time yesterday, and it really bothers me, because the writer makes the same old fallacious arguments in favor of consciousness as a construct of the brain. This was a big let down because the article starts off by making a fantastic point:

To make scientific headway in a topic as tangled as consciousness, it helps to clear away some red herrings. Consciousness surely does not depend on language. Babies, many animals and patients robbed of speech by brain damage are not insensate robots; they have reactions like ours that indicate that someone’s home. Nor can consciousness be equated with self-awareness. At times we have all lost ourselves in music, exercise or sensual pleasure, but that is different from being knocked out cold.

Yes! When I read that paragraph I though, “Wow, finally someone gets it. Maybe this is going to be good.”

The article then explains what the Hard Problem of consciousness is and offers the least controversial solution:

The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly, everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) remains a mystery.

Although neither problem has been solved, neuroscientists agree on many features of both of them, and the feature they find least controversial is the one that many people outside the field find the most shocking. Francis Crick called it “the astonishing hypothesis”–the idea that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain.Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.

Strange…this is not news. This is what scientists have thought for a long time, and this article brings up the same old tropes as always. I think the point of this article is to remind us that our lives are meaningless, we have no soul, and that when we die it’s all over.

One of the arguments the article give is this: since brain activity is entangled with actual emotions and thoughts, the brain must be creating emotions and thoughts. Here’s an example from the article:

Using functional MRI, cognitive neuroscientists can almost read people’s thoughts from the blood flow in their brains. They can tell, for instance, whether a person is thinking about a face or a place or whether a picture the person is looking at is of a bottle or a shoe.

This proves nothing. Why do scientists assume that blood flow in the brain is creating thoughts, when they could just as easily assume that thoughts cause the blood flow in the brain? Here’s a better example that I just made up: If I see you smiling, I know you’re happy. Therefore, the mental state of happiness must be created by your mouth! Sheesh, I can practically read your mind.

Another argument the article makes is: since consciousness is affected by physical events, the brain must be creating emotions and thoughts. Here’s an example from the article:

And consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations. Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, such as a song playing in the room or a childhood birthday party.

Isn’t this exactly what we would expect if we believed in a “soul” or “ghost in the machine”? If we believed that the brain interprets visual information to present an image for the “soul” to look at, then of course you could effect that image by manipulating the brain with electric impulses. Here’s an analogy I like: If I start zapping your computer with electricity, you might see some weird images on your screen. Therefore, you must be a creation of your computer! As dumb as that sounds, it’s pretty much what the article says.

Chemicals that affect the brain, from caffeine and alcohol to Prozac and LSD, can profoundly alter how people think, feel and see.

All it takes to affect how I think and feel is to see a naked girl. Yes, our consciousness reacts to physical reality — that’s always been known. Hell, it’s the very nature of experience. The fact that our consciousness reacts to brain activity is no different. It actually makes a lot of sense if you believe in a metaphysical consciousness: the brain rewards your “soul” with pleasure when you do things that keep it alive — like eating — an punishes your “soul” with pain when you do something that might hurt it — like punching yourself in the face.

What’s really funny about the “Hard Problem” of consciousness is that it simply disappears when you don’t believe the brain creates consciousness. If something like a soul exists, all of the above phenomena still make sense, and there’s no need to explain how joy, sorrow, or love arises out of a hunk of meat.

Another way — actually, the only other way — to solve the “Hard Problem” is to theorize that all matter-energy is conscious in some way. Many people don’t like that idea, but if you look at a rock through a microscope, you’ll find lots of tiny, whirring particles and bustling energy transactions of heat and vibration. Rocks are more “alive” than they appear to the naked eye.

Disclaimer: I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in some authoritative god, but I do entertain the belief in a metaphysical reality if it makes sense.

Logical fallacy of division

September 27, 2006

I found something on wikipedia.com that is enragingly stupid: the fallacy of division.

A fallacy of division occurs when one reasons logically that something true of a thing must also be true of at least some of its constituents.

An example:

1. A Boeing 747 can fly unaided across the ocean

2. If a Boeing 747 can fly unaided across the ocean, then one of its jet engines can fly unaided across the ocean.

3. One of its jet engines can fly unaided across the ocean

This is so wrong I don’t know where to begin. First, the example doesn’t even correctly demonstrate the stated definition:”A fallacy of division occurs when one reasons logically that something true of a thing must also be true of at least some of its constituents.” The example picks a specific part of the plane, and just happens to pick the wrong part. So, let’s reword the example carefully.

1. A Boeing 747 can fly unaided across the ocean

2. If a Boeing 747 can fly unaided across the ocean, then some part of a Boeing 747 can fly unaided across the ocean.

3. Some part of a Boeing 747 can fly unaided across the ocean

Is there some part of a Boeing 747 that can fly unaided across the ocean? Yes — the part that flies! Remove the passenger seats, the landing gear, the radio equipment, and what are you left with: the constituent part of the jet that can fly unaided across the ocean. Good luck landing it, though.

We have to look for a better example. Is there some object where no constituent part has a property that the whole object has? How about the mass of a rock?

1) A rock has a mass of 100 grams.

2) If a rock has a mass of 100 grams, some part of the rock has a mass of 100 grams.

3) Some part of the rock must have a mass of 100 grams.

Obviously the last statement is untrue — if we take away any part of the rock, the resulting part will have a mass of less than 100 grams. But do you see the problem here? We’re confusing a property with the value of the property. Since the definition of a fallacy of division says nothing about values of properties, let’s reword the example without referring to values.

1) A rock has mass.

2) Since a rock has mass, some part of the rock must have mass.

3) Some part of the rock has mass.

Now we have a true statement. Maybe we should get rid of the fallacy of division and replace it with The Fallacy of Confusing a Variable and its Value.

Another problem with the “fallacy” of division is that most properties are reducible into other properties. When you simply reword an argument to refer only to component properties, the fallacy disappears. Look at the example of a Boeing 747. Flight is not just a property; it’s a combination of other properties: the ability to generate thrust and the ability to generate lift.

1. A Boeing 747 can generate enough lift and thrust for an unaided flight across the ocean

2. If a Boeing 747 can generate enough lift and thrust for an unaided flight across the ocean, then some part of it can generate enough thrust for an unaided flight across the ocean, and some part of it can generate enough lift for an unaided flight across the ocean.

3. Some part of a Boeing 747 can generate enough thrust for an unaided flight across the ocean, and some part of it can generate enough lift for an unaided flight across the ocean

So, while no constituent part of a 747 must logically have two properties of a 747 (both thrust generation and lift generation), some part of the jet must have one (and that’s true — the engines generate thrust and the wings generate lift). As long as you divide the properties and the object, no fallacy of division occurs. So the definition of the fallacy of division should be worded thusly: A fallacy of division occurs when one reasons logically that two things true of a thing must also be true of at least one of its constituents. However, since a simple rewording usually fixes the problem, the issue is pedantic.

My conclusion is this: a fallacy of division is not made if values of properties are not mentioned. Otherwise, the logic simply needs rewording.

Now, why do I get so upset about this? Well, I’ve used arguments based on logic like this: In physics, every property of any object is the sum of the properties of every particle within that object. I’ve also said: Nothing that exists is created from nothing, but instead built from smaller pieces that already exist. I think these statements are demonstrably true, and theories of emergence (that objects or properties magically appear) are demonstrably false. “Emergence” is just a pansy way for physicist to claim that mind is physical without being able to explain the phenomenon with physics. Either explain it with physics, or admit that it might be metaphysical.

The implications of a physical consciousness

September 21, 2006

One of the biggest questions anyone can ask is, “what is consciousness?” Is it an illusion created by the brain, or evidence of a soul?

All right, let’s be honest here. Most people do not make up their mind based on reason, logic, or even intuition. The truth is, most people believe what they do for social or emotional reasons — truth be damned. An evangelical Christian believes in the soul, based on faith, regardless of reason. A hardcore physical scientist will never, ever admit the existence of the soul, even when faced with irrefutable proof, lest he be ridiculed by his colleagues. Therefore, there can never be an honest debate about consciousness — that’s just a fact.

So, to make it harder for anyone to escape the logic, I’m going to make it real simple. I want to show what it actually means to say that consciousness is created by the brain. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that consciousness is physical and see where we get.

Let’s start with two simple, proven bases.

1) In physics, nothing is created. Nothing that exists is created from nothing, but instead built from smaller pieces that already exist.

Don’t get me wrong, I wish a cherried-out ’65 fastback Mustang could magically appear out of thin air (in my garage, thank you), but it ain’t gonna happen. According to science, neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed.

2) Consciousness exists.

Are you reading this? Good, then don’t try to argue that consciousness is an illusion. That’s bullshit. Illusions can only exist in the perceptions of an observer — a consciousness. Or, if you like Descartes: “I am thinking, therefore I exist.”

Now, with these two bases, the logical ramification is clear: consciousness is not created, but built from smaller parts of consciousness. So, what are the smaller “pieces” of consciousness? There are two possibilities:

  • there is a yet undiscovered physical “consciousness particle” or “consciousness force”
  • consciousness is a property of existing physical particles or forces

Either way, consciousness is built in to our universe. Also, remember: in physics, not only can matter/energy not be created, it can’t be destroyed, either. And therefore, consciousness is eternal. Hardcore physical scientists, who believe that the universe is dead and mindless, really hate this conclusion.

Of course, the context of my logic is that consciousness is physical. The only way to escape the conclusion that consciousness is eternal and built into the universe is to believe that consciousness is metaphysical, and thus, outside the scope of physics. If you believe anything else, and you can’t point out specific flaws in my logic, then you aren’t being honest.

Edited 1/28/07

Logical proof that consciousness is eternal

September 19, 2006

Scientists have long claimed that consciousness is a construct of the brain, ruled by chemistry. I have always found such claims to be intuitively false at best and irrationally dogmatic at worst. The problem with science is that it is becoming a religion. When you look at the larger pattern of scientist’s beliefs, the religion becomes clear: The universe is dead. All events are accidents, matter and forces are mindless, and existence is meaningless.

Anything violating this religion scares the daylights out of them.

I don’t know why many scientists are afraid of the idea that our consciousness is something special. The prime reality of consciousness is absurdly obvious: in a universe where everything is an illusion, the only thing that is real is the ability to experience the illusion. That’s intuitive. But it’s not proof.

So let’s prove it.

Let’s prove that consciousness is eternal, or at least metaphysical. This won’t be a technically perfect proof, but the necessary reasoning is here.

Basis: Consciousness exists. You can’t argue with me on this point. If you’re reading this, you are aware. If you are aware, you are conscious (those words are synonyms, actually). If somehow you can read this and reply without being aware, then you must be some sort of soulless computer program — sorry, but I don’t have time to argue with robots.

If you doubt your own consciousness, you are at least thinking, and thinking is an act of consciousness. You can’t ponder an issue that you aren’t conscious of, right? If you’re still not sure if you’re aware, pinch yourself as hard as possible (because you deserve it). If it hurts, then you’ve just experienced consciousness.

If you’re following this so far, good. It’s pretty simple. You are aware, and therefore, consciousness exists. But before we go on, let’s knock down an argument from the opposition.

Nonsensical Opposing Argument: “Consciousness is an illusion created by the brain. We aren’t really conscious, it just feels that way.”

Yes, I’ve actually heard plenty of people make this argument, even though it’s obviously contradictory. I can’t imagine what kind of self-fear a person must have to desperately believe that they have no consciousness, despite their direct experience of thought and feeling. It’s disturbing. But anyway, I hope you intuitively grasp the contradiction.

illusion [i-loo-zhuhn] –noun: something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality.

If consciousness is an illusion, who is being deceived? Who is being misled? You can’t deceive a rock. You can only deceive a conscious being. If illusions exist, then consciousness exists. If consciousness is an illusion, then illusions exist, and therefore consciousness exists. It can’t get anymore contradictory than that.

Now that we have a solid basis, let’s delve deeper.

Logic Step #1: If consciousness exists, it is either completely physical or not completely physical. In other words, there are two possibilities: either our ability to think and feel is either a physical phenomenon created entirely by the brain, or it requires something metaphysical, like a soul or life-force. With this statement, I’m partitioning the entire realm of possibilities into two non-overlapping cases, because it makes this problem easier to figure out.

Let’s explore each one of these cases separately.

Case 1: Consciousness is not completely physical. If consciousness is not an entirely physical phenomenon, then there must be some metaphysical aspect to it. In this case, you can pretty much believe whatever you want — something like a soul must exist, and there’s really no good reason to believe that consciousness dies with the body. The physical world endlessly recycles matter and energy, so why wouldn’t the metaphysical world endlessly recycle consciousness? This possibility opens a huge can of metaphysical worms and scares the dark matter out of scientists, so of course, they refuse to even consider the thought. But for most people, this is a pretty happy conclusion.

Case 1 conclusion: If consciousness is not completely physical, it is partly metaphysical.

But consciousness is physical, you say. Maybe all that fufu metaphysical stuff doesn’t do it for you. That’s fine, because the idea that consciousness is created by our brains is even more interesting. Let’s explore that case.

Case 2: Consciousness is completely physical. In physics, numbers have to add up. When you add up the mass of particles in a rock, the total mass of particles equals the total mass of the rock. The mass of the rock already exists in the mass of the particles. What is it, in the brain, that adds up to consciousness? Where does it come from?

In physics, every property of any object is the sum of the properties of every particle within that object. For example, the heat energy of a steel rod is equal to the sum of the heat energy of the rod’s molecules. The charge of a molecule is equal to the sum of the charges of it’s particles. Energy works the same way, and science tells us that energy is just another form of matter. Everything in physics is a sum of its component matter and energy. And so must be consciousness, if it is a physical thing.

Logic Step #3: If consciousness is completely physical, then consciousness is a property of matter and/or energy.

Yep — that means that every quark possibly has some sort of awareness. And why not? If you kick a rock, it has to know, so it can get up and start rolling. Rocks may not be able to think…or can they? (They can take sunlight as input, process it into heat, and store it in a crystalline structure until a lizard’s belly requests the output. That sounds like a computer to me!) It doesn’t have to be the quarks that are aware; it could be, say, the weak force (although this distinction has been diminished by findings that matter and forces are really the same thing). Either way, some physical building block is aware.

Now, science knows something about matter and energy. It’s eternal. Matter and energy cannot be created nor destroyed — common knowledge for anyone who passed a physics class. And consciousness, if physical, is  inherent to matter/energy.

Case 2 conclusion: If consciousness is completely physical, then consciousness cannot be destroyed.

There you have it. Either consciousness is metaphysical and possibly eternal, or consciousness is physical and assuredly eternal. Either way, it sounds like a good deal to me.

EDIT 9/26/06: Paragraph 22 was carefully re-worded to avoid sloppy logic.