Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, August 30, 2015

"No matter, never mind."


"Mind" is a metaphysical concept.  So is "consciousness."  Which may be why it is "the hardest unsolved problem in science."  And why "solving" it so resembles the effort to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity:  i.e., it wanders "off into fantasy realms of higher dimensions with little or no empirical connection to our reality."

Which, you will note, violates the fundamental premise of science.  Just like metaphysics does.

Philosophers, especially philosophers of religion, and theologians, have gone to great pains in the last 100 years to jettison "classical" metaphysics.  One effort to replace it was with a non-metaphysical metaphysic based on the work of Alfred North Whitehead after he gave up on mathematics and logical positivism thanks to Kurt Godel and Ludwig Wittgenstein.  That effort spawned "process theology," which never got further than a few American theologians, best I can tell.  We have to discard metaphysics because physics, above all, won't allow it anymore.

But we still have to solve the problem of consciousness, which is related to mind, which "arises" from a brain, so it must be physical, which makes it science-y somehow.

Right?

60 years ago the popular theory was that brain cells reached a critical mass (much like the "trigger" for a nuclear bomb.  We do love our metaphors, especially if they sound scientific!) and "became" conscious.  Arthur C. Clarke wrote a story about it happening with enough telephone exchanges, the connections of the phones standing in for the connections between brain cells.  Essentially the same idea fuels science fiction tales of world-wide defense computers that "wake up" and decide to destroy all human life in order to enact "peace."  It's been a favorite meme for decades.

And it's utter bollocks.  As well as an attempt to escape metaphysics by pretending the solution to consciousness, or mind, or "soul," isn't metaphysical.

A commenter at Religion Dispatches tried to argue that "mind" arose from the brain, but "soul" was some outdated religious notion.  But "soul" is no more understandable apart from the body than mind is apart from brain.  When we speak of "soul" we were always speaking of the animating force of the body, of what is different between a sleeping person and a corpse, why one will eventually awaken and move, and the other will never move again.  Soul as the essence, the inviolable and eternal person we might now call "personality" started in the West not with religion, but with Socrates.  He gave us the dualism of soul and body, leading to the modern critique that soul cannot be known apart from body and so cannot claim a separate existence from the body.  But of course soul cannot be known apart from the body, any more than "mind" can be known apart from the brain.  Whether soul can exist apart from body is a metaphysical question (and not necessarily a religious one).  Whether it can or not, body cannot exist without soul, without some animating process, some "spark", some motive factor.  Because once that factor is lost, the body begins an inexorable decay.

And yet some still think "consciousness" can be "uploaded" into a computer, because computer=brain; somehow.  Or it will; someday; when our technology finally catches up with nature.

Utter bollocks, and not something most serious thinkers take seriously.  But the idea that the computer somehow reflects our brain, our mind, is still a seductive thought; and it's a metaphysical one.  Why is a sleeping person different from a corpse?  We have known since the dawn of humanity that sufficient damage to the body can cause the animating force to fail.  It doesn't have to go anywhere, but where did it come from?  Why can't we reproduce it?  Mary Shelley knew enough to cloud her Frankenstein's efforts in mystery:  he used alchemy and something that was probably magic to give life to his monster.  It wasn't a lightning storm, otherwise the galvanic response of frog's legs would re-animate corpses around the world.  Where does the "spark of life" come from?  How is it only living things can pass it on?  We can grow cells in a laboratory, keep them alive for years in an artificial environment.  But if they are not alive to begin with, there's nothing we can do to re-animate them.  Why not?

The distinction between living and dead is the same as it's ever been:  between something that will move, and something that will never move again.  We've become more aware of the subtleties of that line, of the difference between corpse and coma, but we've done nothing to erase that line, to change it, to understand how to reverse it.  We speak of "life" but we still speak of something that is not entirely physical; known physically, but not understood physically.

The same way we speak of "mind;" the same way we speak of "consciousness."

Metaphysics is dead.  Long live metaphysics.


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