December 11, 2013

Not Just Stuff

Jim Naughton reports on an interview between Patricia Churchland and Graham Lawton, concerning her book Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain. Perhaps in a Freudian slip, she refers to her conclusions as, "unnerving..." But if you take away the nerves, by her standards, there can be no ideas!

The "mind-body" debate is a very old one, with a great deal of nuance. Even materialism has to first decide what "matter" is, and I don't think physics has yet plumbed the depths of material and energetic nature to the extent of absolute assurance. I don't think it is likely ever to be settled, as Churchland seems to think it is, through her process of elimination — which I fear looks a bit like a mere reluctance to accept others' perceptions as "real" — a hands over the ears and "la la la la" refusal even to accept the possibility that there is more to the mind than the brain, more to reality than just matter and energy.

Ultimately, neuroexistentialism is just another minimalizing answer to the question of Mind. I find such reductionist models less than helpful — and after all, why should I believe what Churchland or any other collection of tissues suggests is the ultimate reality?

Further questions remain: What if there is an ultimate reality to which, as Neal Stephenson suggests in Anathem, nerve tissue is uniquely sensitive and responsive? What if the brain, even if "just" tissue, is a sense organ designed to pick up on realities not otherwise sensible? What if Spirit is just as real as atoms?

If human beings are just sacks of meat, then soylent green is in our future. No thank you, P.C., I'll stick with the mind as more than the sum of its parts. As Teilhard so wisely said, "My matter is not a 'part' of the universe that I possess totaliter. It is the totality of the universe possessed by me partialiter." My mind exists outside my body, including in other minds — even as you read these words.

So here's to an expansionist, rather than a reductionist, understanding of the mind.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


IT said...

I really don't understand your dislike of this.

So what if consciousness is made of biochemical signals in our brains? We can't be reduced to the firing of a single synapse, any more than a symphony can be reduced to the striking of a single note. Yet ultimately the unique composition occurs because of the coordination of many single notes.

It is in the endless variety of those events that we create something that is not mere neurotransmitters, but art, music, love.... the sum being greater than the parts. I doubt Churchland would disagree with that.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, IT. I've used the musical analogy in the past myself. The difference, though, to carry the analogy further, is that the symphony is not just a mechanical result of bits of metal and wood stimulating the vibrations of air. There is a mind behind the writing of the music and many minds involved in its performance. I do not believe that "meaning" can arise out of randomness, and that there is some kind of interrelation not accounted for in the reductionist explanation.

Even the finding of "meaning" or "order" has to be defined from outside the system. We say that a checkerboard is "meaningful" but a random display of red and black squares not so... yet both are just arrangements of squares in terms of material substance -- it is the interrelationship of the squares to which we give "meaning." But that "meaning" is imposed by our minds, and does not arise from the squares.

I find it difficult to accept that the coordination of nervous processes is simply a rather complex feedback loop, or that consciousness, or the mind, is an illusion or a byproduct. I've seen some of the consciousness studies that purport to demonstrate that consciousness is illusory, but I think them to be ill-designed, and not really testing consciousness, but awareness. (There is a certain kind of consciousness even in dreaming; but it is different from the consciousness of wakefulness.)

From what I've seen of her work, Churchland is rather radical, so I am not sure she would go with anything beyond the sum of parts mode.

June Butler said...

I do not believe that "meaning" can arise out of randomness...

Exactly. How will science ever demonstrate that "meaning" arises out of randomness without moving outside the system?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Mimi. I keep falling back on the great process theologians like Hartshorne, Teilhard de Chardin, and especially more recently Marjorie Suchocki. The metaphysical and philosophical framework they provide seems to me to have the virtue of reconciling both the ancient testimony of Scripture and the findings of modern science, revealing God not as an omnipotent control freak but a lover! Too much theology came to be about God as controlling rather than loving -- something we lost sight of for about a millennium!

IT said...

Well I guess I'm too much of a scientist and not enough of a theologian. Churchland fancies herself a bit of a philosopher, as did Crick and others. I don't think most scientists would agree with the idea that consciousness is an "illusion".

June Butler said...

I've read Teilhard de Chardin and Suchocki, and both theologians make a lot of sense to me.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I think that's the problem I have with Churchland. Instead of sticking with the verifiable facts, suported by data, she goes on to draw conclusions that actually stem more from a philosophical preconception, a form of radical empiricism or materialism. That strikes me as just as bad as a rigid spiritualism that ignores scientific evidence.

Process philosophy and theology seems to me to take account of reality in a way that makes sense both of the evidence and the sense of purposefulness in and to life. Whitehead was a mathematician, used to hard science, and worked closely with the atheist Russell, but developed a philosophy and theology that makes a great deal of sense to me.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Mimi, also good to recall that Teilhard was a scientist, as well as a priest... and a Jesuit!

June Butler said...

I first read Teilhard de Chardin when I was an undergraduate at Loyola University in New Orleans, a Jesuit institution, where science, along with theology, was taken quite seriously. :-)

MarkBrunson said...

There can't be any really objective studies on this. Nor is science actually objective. It attempts, as best it can, to be, but it isn't. The scientist is still a human being, and data are lumps of stuff - it is only through the subjective, fallible human that the lumps of stuff are fashioned into an approximation of reality. Until you have a scientist who exists outside of any sort of physical reference and with a direct knowledge of all interrelationships of action/thought/matter in existence, then you cannot have a truly objective science.

That's always been my problem with the didactic claim to single truth made by scientists. It's neither more nor less subjective than any other field of endeavor or study, it just attempts (at its best) so to be.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Mimi, I first encountered Teilhard in the late 60s, and he was instrumental in getting me back into faith from agnosticism, as he demonstrated that faith was not antithetic to reason.

Mark, it's that absolute reductionism that bothers me in claims of "scientism" -- "We've got all the answers"... except they don't! Humility is key in both science and religion, and both have their fundamentalists. ;-)