Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Epistemology and the Limitations of Knowledge

By Steve Rensberry  

Epistemology is an important branch of philosophy concerned with the parameters and limits of human knowledge, with beliefs that are justifiably true and based on that which is genuinely real. It is concerned with the capability of things in general to be known and understood in their deepest essence.
   Are abstract constructs real? What do we make of the thoughts, images and emotions experienced by a conscious human mind? Certainly they can be said to be subjectively meaningful to the person experiencing them, but are they grounded in some deeper type of reality, independent of the subject? Plato attempted to make this exact point in his Theory of Forms, Aristotle argued against it and many others throughout the ages have sought to add their own insight into the definition of what is real, what is imagined and how it is we can know the difference.
   This essay will consider the idea that this thing we call knowledge is fundamentally a linguistic tool, albeit one which presumably helps us to understand and control the world around us. Giving a name to phenomenon which we consider most certain also helps us to reduce the physiological stress that can arise from doubt. In similar fashion, the attempt to define reality itself will be considered as making, at best, a series of relative and subjective affirmations. What we say, what we believe, what we think, takes shape only after it is filtered through a maze of human cognitive processes, replete with all of its genetic predispositions, emotional baggage and life experiences.
   First, let me address the false dichotomy which is frequently drawn between those who are skeptical about the existence of absolutes on the one hand, and those who are skeptical about skepticism on the other. Typical is the following criticism of absolute skepticism, as stated in Questions That Matter by Ed. L. Miller (McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1984, pg. 191): "Actually, there have been relatively few absolute skeptics. It is not hard to see why. Critics of this position have been quick to charge that it is impractical and impossible. It is impractical because, from the purely practical standpoint of getting along in the world, no one in his or her right mind can actually live on such a premise. Our daily lives are pervaded by what we take to be (whether they actually are or not) assurances, certainties, and in a word, all kinds of knowledge."
   Likewise, Miller provides the traditional response to relativism by pointing to its supposedly self-contradictory and self-refuting nature. "For they maintain, with the greatest assurance, that we cannot maintain anything. Otherwise stated: If we cannot know anything, then how do we know that? Stated again: If absolute skepticism is true, then it must be false!"
   Such criticism, however, misrepresents the issue. When people hypothesize that absolutes do not exist, all they are saying is that the weight of evidence appears, from their limited perspective as finite human beings, against the existence of absolutes; in the same way, modern empiricists question that substantive knowledge can be derived from sources that are completely independent of the senses.
   Why must we assume anything to be infinitely true, to necessarily be absolute in nature in order to live our lives? Perhaps this is just one dimension of many. Perhaps what we see now is not the way things always have been, nor how they will be millions of years in the future. Why must we make a leap into absolutism to be sufficiently certain about the world around us. Is it not enough to interact with things as relative phenomenon that are simply true most of the time, that display a high degree of probability and consistency but that also carry with them the chance of floundering in the face of contrary evidence? To object to absolutism is not to make a metaphysical claim but merely to point to the illogic of the concept and to the dearth of empirical evidence available to substantiate it. As I have mentioned in previous posts, to claim that there are absolutes is implicitly claim that there is no place anywhere in the universe where absolutes do not exist.
   Obviously there are many things which present us with a high degree of certainty that we cannot readily see with the naked eye, things such as wind and gravity, but we can test them as to their veracity through empirical, scientific means that act as an extension of human sensory organs. There also are many presumed entities and abstract concepts which, while theorized as real, are little less than figments of the human imagination. Placing our complete trust and in that which we have no solid evidence for, that is presumed in fact to be outside of the realm of scientific analysis altogether, is the issue at stake.
   Since the dawn of recorded history, human beings have embraced a large number of false beliefs. For one list of such beliefs, see: List of Common Misconceptions.
   Though it doesn't take an illness to believe a falsehood, the false beliefs of those who suffer from schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis are well documented, as are the suspected physiological basis for them.
   One report discussed in Time Magazine in a story by journalist Maia Szalavitz links the phenomena of false belief to the presence or absence of a particular fold in the human brain, a fold that is missing in an estimated one-quarter of people and 44 percent of those with schizophrenia.
   Hanna Pickard with the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and All Souls College at the University of Oxford has written an interesting piece entitled Schizophrenia and the Epistemology of Self-Knowledge, in which she discusses what is termed "alien thought," leading many people suffering from paranoid delusions and schizophrenia to mistakenly assign alien responsibility for their own thoughts.
   "There is evidence that both schizophrenic and paranoid patients show a generalized attributional reasoning bias towards assigning causal responsibility for events to others, rather than to assigning them to themselves," Pickard writes, citing two references. (Baker, C. A., and Morrison, A. P. 1998. Cognitive processes in auditory hallucinations, Psychological Medicine 28(5): 1199-208; Moritz, S., Woodward, T. S., Burlon, M., Braus, D. F. and Anderson, B. 2007. Attributional style in schizophrenia, Cognitive Therapy and Research 31(3): 371-83.)
   Pickard also notes the tendency for such subjects to jump to conclusions more so than normal subjects. (Garety and Hemsley, Delusions: Investigations into the psychology of delusional reasoning, Oxford University Press, 1994).
   "The proposal suggests that they are prone to alien thought because they may also show exaggerated irrationality in the capacity for conscious reflection to causally influence the maintenance and revision of beliefs and other mental states; that it is something which in principle is open to empirical testing. But importantly, as I have emphasized, it is an abnormality that places them along a continuum together with the rest of us. Indeed, it is natural to envisage a spectrum of related abnormalities, more or less pathological, moving from immoral or selfish or shameful thoughts, to addiction and akrasia, to obsessional thinking and disorders, through to prodromal alien thought and finally full-blown schizophrenia," Pickard states.
   If only it were possible to venture into the epistemological jungle without also addressing the multi-faceted issues of belief, truth and evidence (or justification), but it is mighty difficult. One way to depict the relationship is by use of a Euler diagram. The diagram places knowledge within a subset represented by two overlapping circles, one representing truth and one representing beliefs. Something can be true but not believed, and visa versa. True knowledge, categorically speaking, must be something that is both true and believed. This is not to deny instances where a person's belief just happens to be true by accident or by luck. (see: The Gettier problem). Whether such cases of "luck-based belief" are justified ultimately begs the question: how do we determine (know) what things are real and what things are not?
    The great divide in epistemological circles is, generally speaking, between empiricists such as Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Locke and David Hume; and rationalists such as Plato, René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza, with philosophers such as Immanuel Kant attempting to bridge the gap by arguing that both are necessary to some degree in acquiring knowledge -- with reason being necessary to help make sense of experience, yet impotent in regard to claims about things of which no human can possibly have any experience of.
   Either way, the idea of knowledge being acquired by some sort of intuitive sense of truth that we are all born with seems to me an idea which can only survive by assuming an immensely broad definition of what constitutes evidence. Analytical philosopher Alvin Plantinga's reformed epistemology posits the idea of a "properly basic belief," as reason enough for one's beliefs, needing neither inference from established truths nor empirical evidence of any kind. The proposition falters in essentially appealing to subjective experience and to an overly-broad definition of what constitutes sufficient evidence.
   Plantinga, as with fellow theist C.S. Lewis, makes the mistake of reaching for absolute certainty without warrant, and by taking aim at empirical, naturalistic approaches to knowledge by building up the traditional straw man in order to be able to knock it down, falsely claiming that they are self-defeating and incoherent.
  Let me invite your consideration of two views, one espoused by Hume in his work, the Treatise of Human Nature, and the other by G.W. Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit.
   Hume writes: "But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions. Our thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change; nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment. The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations." (ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge; Oxford University Press, London, 1888 pgs. 251-153). See: Of Personal Identity.
   Faced with perceptions of an "inconceivable rapidity," and in a state of "perpetual flux and movement," as Hume puts it, is it any wonder the human animal is so prone to tether itself to something that is of an eternally unchanging nature, permanent and lasting, yet without proper justification?
   Hegel, in the Phenomenology of Spirit (Mind), writes: "The goal to be reached is the mind’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there. The length of the journey has to be borne with, for every moment is necessary; and again we must halt at every stage, for each is itself a complete individual form, and is fully and finally considered only so far as its determinate character is taken and dealt with as a rounded and concrete whole, or only so far as the whole is looked at in the light of the special and peculiar character which this determination gives it. Because the substance of individual mind, nay, more, because the universal mind at work in the world (Weltgeist), has had the patience to go through these forms in the long stretch of time’s extent, and to take upon itself the prodigious labour of the world’s history, where it bodied forth in each form the entire content of itself, as each is capable of presenting it; and because by nothing less could that all-pervading mind ever manage to become conscious of what itself is — for that reason, the individual mind, in the nature of the case, cannot expect by less toil to grasp what its own substance contains."
   Hegel's point: The imperfect human consciousness instinctively establishes its own criteria for knowledge, subsequently modifying its concept of reality (the object) to fit an imperfect knowledge, rather than adjusting its knowledge to conform to the object, a distinction which ultimately is immaterial. As noted in this Wikipedia entry on Hegel: "At the end of the process, when the object has been fully 'spiritualized' by successive cycles of consciousness' experience, consciousness will fully know the object and at the same time fully recognize that the object is none other than itself."
   A rather interesting phenomenon often takes place whenever a person who has made an intellectual and emotional commitment to transcendent truths runs out of logical defenses. "It doesn't really matter," they'll say. "I know what I believe is true because I have a personal relationship with (pick your transcendent entity). In other words, they "just know," as if by magic, as if by some invisible force and source of knowledge wholly beyond human comprehension. By any measure, it's a response that relies on such a broadly subjective criteria for knowledge as to be essentially no criteria at all.

For Further Reading
David Hume
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
The Phenomenology of Spirit
Plato and the Theory of Forms
Logical Positivism
Questions that Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy
The Ontology of Concepts: Abstract Objects or Mental Representations
Schizophrenia and the Epistemology of Self-Knowledge

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Space, Time and the Human Condition

 By Steve Rensberry

  Researchers at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at the University of California, San Diego have estimated that the awe-inspiring, spiral-shaped Milky Way Galaxy, in which our own earth resides, contains more than 400 billion stars. Other estimates place the number around 300 billion, but either way we are talking about an incredibly large number.
   Furthermore, the Milky Way Galaxy contains nearly the same number of planets, scientists say, with microlensing observations suggesting that those in the habitable zone may number as high as 10 billion. The galaxy is composed of a galactic center; a rotating, flattened disk area containing a very large number of stars (along with large amounts of galactic dust and various molecular and atomic gases); and a spherical halo of presumably dark matter, whose presence is inferred by its gravitational effects on the visible portions of the galaxy. (a)
   "The halo consists of the oldest stars known, including about 146 globular clusters, believed to have been formed during the early formation of the galaxy with ages of 10-15 billion years from their H-R Diagrams," states one online tutorial written by Professor H.E. "Gene" Smith. (b)
   While an enormous amount of dark matter is theorized as being integral to the milky way's existence—and indeed the composition of the entire universe, alternative theories do exist. Astronomers at the University of Bonn, whose findings were published by the Royal Astronomical Society, are among those who have called the existence of dark matter into question.
   "In their effort to understand exactly what surrounds our Galaxy, the scientists used a range of sources from twentieth century photographic plates to images from the robotic telescope of the Sloan Deep Sky Survey.
   Using all these data they assembled a picture that includes bright ‘classical’ satellite galaxies, more recently detected fainter satellites and the younger globular clusters," the RAS states in a May 2012 update. "The astronomers found that all the different objects are distributed in a plane at right angles to the galactic disk. The newly-discovered structure is huge, extending from as close as 33,000 light years to as far away as one million light years from the centre of the Galaxy." (c)
   Lead author Marcel Pawlowski and team member Pavel Kroupa have suggested that what we are really seeing is the remnants of a collision between two galaxies billions of years ago.
   Evidence calling into question the existence of dark matter also was presented on June 18 from data collected in an unusual underground experiment at Italy's Gran Sasso National Laboratory, designed to detect the "weakly interacting massive particles” (WIMPs), which many scientists suspect dark matter to be composed of. Yet after 225 days of data collection, using an instrument far more sensitive than had ever been used before, the elusive dark matter particles remained as elusive as ever. (d.)
   To the contrary, this past month astronomers at the University of Michigan claimed to have observed what they call a filament of dark matter between two relatively adjacent galaxy clusters.
   As stated by Zeeya Merali in the July 4, 2012 online issue of Nature: "The presence of dark matter is usually inferred by the way its strong gravity bends light traveling from distant galaxies that lie behind it — distorting their apparent shapes as seen by telescopes on earth. But it is difficult to observe this 'gravitational lensing' by dark matter in filaments because they contain relatively little mass. (Jörg) Dietrich and his colleagues got around this problem by studying a particularly massive filament, 18 megaparsecs long, that bridges the galaxy clusters Abell 222 and Abell 223." (e)
   The exact nature and possible existence of dark matter, as with dark energy, is very intriguing and likely to be debated for some time. But let me turn the corner and draw your attention to something which I believe is far more fundamental.
   What needs to be debated and vigorously challenged is the human propensity to resign itself to a philosophically constricted and scripted view of the human experience; that says everything—everything—must have absolute meaning in order to have value; and which reasons that death is inevitable and merely transitory.
   How can humanity transcend the physical limitations of its existence in a real and practical sense—as opposed to the fantasy worlds built by superstition and spiritualism?
   This is the question we should be asking.
   Will we ever reach the stars?
   Not if we fail to think outside the framework of tradition.
   Not if we don’t stop ourselves from dying in the process.
   The three-star Alpha Centauri system, the closest stars to our own, lies an estimated 4.37 light years away. The red dwarf known as Barnard's Star lies 5.96 light years away; Wolf 359 lies about 7.78 light years away; Lalande 21185, also a red dwarf, lies about 8.29 light years away; Sirius lies about 8.58 light years away; Luyten 726-B about 8.73 light years; Ross 248 (HH Andromedae) about 10.32 light years; and Epsilon Eridani about 10.52 light years.
   Astronomers with the European Southern Observatory (ESO) published research this past year which said that there could be as many as 100 planets within 30 light years of earth. Billions more are presumed to exist throughout the broader Milky Way Galaxy. (f)
   But herein lies the problem.
   As defined, a light year is the distance that light in a vacuum travels in one year. That distance is calculated to be a little under 10 trillion kilometers—6 trillion miles in other words. This calculates to an incredible 186,282,297 miles per second. If we wanted to reach even the closest star system beyond our own, the Alpha Centauri system, and managed to reach speeds approaching 150,000 miles per hour, it would this infinitely flight-worthy ship roughly 18,000 years to arrive at its destination. Think about that for a minute.
   We could surely send ourselves on a one-way voyage to some new world millions of light years away, counting on the cycle of reproduction to ensure the continuation of the species, as in Paul W.S. Anderson's 2009 Sci-Fi thriller Pandora, but what would be the point when the people who arrive will be 180 generations removed from those who first began the journey? The odds of maintaining some semblance of sociological, psychological and physical continuity would seem to be slim if not impossible.
   I would not go so far as to say that such a quest would be irrelevant, but I will say this: The need to overcome disease and death, to overcome the genetic and physical imperfections of the human organism in the hear and now, in my opinion dwarfs any perceived need for space travel. When we finally get to the point where serious life extension beyond the pathetically-short 100 years or so we can hope for now becomes a reality, when the people who set off on the journey into space are the same people who will land on that new world in some distant part of the galaxy, then we'll have reason to celebrate.
(a) Nature, Vol. 481, pg 167-169.
(b) Astronomical Tutorial
(c) Do the Milky Way’s Companions Spell Trouble for Dark Matter?
(d) New Cern Tests Attack the Existence of Dark Matter
(e) Dark Matter’s Tendrils Revealed
(f) Astronomers Find First Habitable Earth-Like Planet

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fatalism, Fear and the Future of Humanity

By Steve Rensberry

 In another 1,000 years, what will the people of planet earth think of the world of the early 21st century? That the people of today were barbarians? That they were the last of a fading civilization that still carried with them the superstitious baggage that has been a part of humanity for thousands of years?
   Technologically, biologically, mechanically and scientifically we are bound to be at a place we can barely imagine. Psychologically, emotionally and culturally? Perhaps not so much, for as long at 1,000 years may seem, human nature has proven time and again to be nearly intractable.
   There will be, I imagine, the continued obsession with feeling that one's own period of time remains the most important period of time there has ever been. "We are at the precipice of human civilization," they will say. "The end of the world is just around the corner." But facts are stubborn things and, like clockwork, such pronouncements have proven repeatedly to be devoid of substance, whether their source is a 4,800-year-old Assyrian clay tablet, the apocalyptic pronouncements of the early Romans, or the hundreds if not thousands of end-time predictions made at practically every turn in human history.
   "It should be recalled that early Christians thought the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth would be soon," authors William Ebenstein and Alan O. Ebenstein write. (Great Political Thinkers, Fifth Edition, Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1991, pg 201).
   Then there is the intense rationalization that so often accompanies such pronouncements in the interests of maintaining the integrity--real or imagined--of one's core assumptions about reality, a much easier route to take than to exercise one's faculty of critical thinking or to admit that there are some things about life that we just don't know. But what good is faith if the object of one's faith is imaginary? And if it takes faith to make something real (as in the oft-heard appeal to "just have faith, and 'he' will reveal himself to you"), does this not make it obvious the imaginary, mental source of such "reality" or "truth?" Reality stands on its own merits and commands us to believe by a preponderance of overpowering evidence, without an appeal to some hocus pocus trick involving the adoption of an absolutist frame of mind to make us "see," to manifest reality.
   Another quote from Ebenstein and Ebenstein, this time speaking about the early church, end-time prophecies and the practice of slavery: "As time went on, however, and the advent of the heavenly kingdom was pushed further and further into the future, those church fathers who took an objective look at institutionalized slavery were hard pressed to rationalize its injustices. Some slaves were very good individuals, and therefore not deserving of the 'punishment' of their enslaved condition, while some masters were hateful tyrants. Regrettably, rather than taking the position that slavery was inherently unjust, the institutional response was that one's reward for Christian behavior could only be expected in the next life, not this one." (ibid 201).
   Whatever the source of the fatalism that so many people feel so compelled to embrace, whether it be karma, Biblical prophecy or any variety of superstition, I would suspect that it will be around well into the next millennium. Perhaps this is only to be fatalistic about the endurance of fatalistic thought itself, but is not 1,000 years but a blip on the timeline of human history?
   Then, like now, I would suspect that vast portions of humanity will exhibit the same subconscious urge to surmount the fundamentally suppressive and limiting natural environment. They will love and hate, they will exhibit jealousies, arrogance, and the same discriminatory, self-serving behaviors that they often do now. They will deceive one another for personal gain, pretending to be one thing will desiring another, while many others will remain humble and honest. Hopefully we will have found a cure for many of today's ills, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's Disease and a host of other modern-day plagues such as Parkinson's Disease, AIDS and Multiple Sclerosis.
   Consider the revolution going on in at least three areas: biotechnology, information and computer science and physics.
   In looking at what has transpired in each of these fields over just the past 15 years it is difficult not to be skeptical of the shape of things to come. We have yet to know exactly where the mapping of the human genome will take us. And what of the tremendous advances in artificial intelligence, neurology, wireless digital communications, quantum science and cosmology?
   Who knew where we'd be today, just in the area of biotechnology? In a 2009 Popular Mechanics article, Melinda Wenner writes about "20 Biotech Breakthroughts That Will Change Medicine." Included are: decay-fighting microbes, artificial lymph nodes, an asthma sensor, a biological pacemaker, nerve re generator, speech restorer, a rocket-powered arm and nanosecond adhesives, among others. See: breakthroughs.
   Genomic is a related area where great strides are being made.
   "Today, genomic, the study of all the genetic material in an organism, is leading to tremendous advances in biotechnology. Genomic is both generating new tools and techniques and producing huge amounts of biological data. The deluge of genomic data has even led to the new science of bio informatics, which enables the data to be stored, accessed, compared, and used," a public statement from the United States Department of Agriculture notes. See: biotech.
    The future is bound to place at our fingertips vast amounts of knowledge about ourselves and the natural world that is nothing short of phenomenal. The downside is that human nature is such that many of our base emotions, feelings and desires act to filter what is ultimately perceived. People see what they want to see and no amount of evidence will convince them otherwise, especially when that belief involves some hypothetical, transcendent reality that contravenes all known laws of physics and that is--by definition--beyond one's ability to experience until after death. How can you prove it wrong (or right) when it is by definition outside the only reality we have access to?
   The reality is that if current population trends continue, in another 1,000 years earth will be home to an incredible 84.9 billion people. This assumes a current growth rate of 78.8 million people per year. To survive in such a shrinking world, future civilizations must surely learn to temper the brute scramble for limited resources that has become such an essential feature of today's capitalistic enterprise. More necessary still will be the need to temper the human impulse toward radicalism, in both thought and deed. Technology may help, but what is technology but a tool used to extend, amplify, augment or add to the basic attributes human beings already possess--a tool that can be used either for good or bad?
   The future of humanity may very well require some very rudimentary changes in the way we human beings have thought for literally thousands of years, in learning to frame our differences in terms of constructive rather than destructive debate, in establishing policies that foster economic fairness and opportunity rather the same measure of personal responsibility for persons with unequal genetic attributes and unequal environments, and in solving problems of crime and public threat in ways that don't exaggerate the threats and cost us more in the long run than the crimes themselves. Individual freedom is important to preserve, but who would argue that it should be totally unrestrained in a limited world of shared resources? Ethnocentrism and bigotry, along with the philosophical ideas that fuel them, will most certainly find themselves up against the wall as times we move in the future--particularly so in the wake of the current exponential growth in information and other forms of knowledge working to shed light on the human condition.
    "In this triumphant era of molecular biology and the first draft of the human genome, one might have supposed that we would know the answer to the question, What is life? Yet we do not. We know bits and pieces of molecular machinery, patches of metabolic circuitry, genetic network circuitry, means of membrane biosynthesis, but what makes a free-living cell alive escapes us. The core remains mysterious," writes biochemistry professor Stuart Kauffman in his essay "What is Life." (The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century, Edited by John Brockman, Vintage Books, 2002, Pg. 126).
    As long as there are people uncomfortable with uncertainty, an uncertainty that seems to be built into the very fabric of the universe itself, we will have our debates. But nurturing an acceptance of life's unknowns, of the relative nature of things, may be just the key that we need. Yes, we can be very, very certain of some things, things that can be readily demonstrated and observed--like one plus one equal two, or the fact that people must be born before they die--but everything has its limits. Open minds are inquisitive and empathetic minds. They are minds that value the living over the dead and the here-and-now over the hypothetical, and mind which concern themselves first and foremost with the needs and cares of real people in current time and space, rather than in that which is by definition light years beyond the realm of temporal existence.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Foundations of Belief

By Steve Rensberry

So utterly 
convinced, some 
people are, that what they 
believe is the unmitigated truth.
But what, please tell me, is the criteria?
Feelings? A changed life? Intuition? Circumstance?
An infinitely subjective spark from deep within the mind?
Would you not have to have absolute knowledge, or be 
absolute yourself, to know with certainty that 
nothing at all exists to prove otherwise?
Surely to grapple onto absolute truth, 
or what one thinks is absolute, 
is to embark on a journey 
of one's own making. 
Think of the time. 
The decades. The years.
Wasted. Chasing rainbows.
Confusing effect with the wrong cause.
Believing death is not death, 
but merely a doorway. 
Fabricating reality 
out of emotion.
Must not
belief, to be valid,
rest on sufficient evidence,
rather than on fanciful promises or 
the dogmatic, fear-laden tenets 
of institutionalized 
superstition and 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Consciousness, desire and the human imagination

By Steve Rensberry  

   The nature of human consciousness, reflected in the mind-body problem, has challenged philosophers and thinkers for centuries, from Plato, to René Descartes to David Hume and James Mill. But why exactly is such a personal, human characteristic as consciousness so difficult to pin down?
This essay will suggest an answer, but first let's review the landscape.
   Dualistic interpretations of consciousness make a fundamental distinction between the world of matter and the world of mind, or consciousness as it were. Each are treated as separate, irreducible categories within the realm of existence. Substance dualism considers the substances of mind and body entirely distinct whereas property dualism considers the properties or each—but not necessarily the substance—as distinct. A position known as predicate dualism asserts essentially that the words used to describe mental states or attitudes cannot be reduced to mere physical descriptions.
   Platonic dualism as conceived in Plato's theory of "Forms" (ideas) defines the abstract world of ideas as being the most pure and real, transcending the world of sensation and substance. Cartesian dualism, or Descartes dualism, holds the human soul or mind to be an entirely different, though interactive, substance than the body (centered in the pineal gland). See also: Fundamental property dualism, parallelism, emergent property dualism, neutral monist, property dualism, interactionism, occasionalism, non-reductive physicalism and epiphenomenalism.
   The position of the monist, on the other hand, is that matter and consciousness are combined into one vast, unified realm of existence, with monistic idealists picturing a realm that all is mind, physicalists positing one that all is matter and neutral monists arguing for an underlying reality or energy that is common to both. Physicalism credits brain activity exclusively with what has been traditional thought of as "the mind." Physicalism is distinguished from mere materialism in the inclusion of complicated non-material forces and particles that make up the physical world. Although Christianity and many other religions are generally dualist in their thinking, pantheism and panentheism are thoroughly monistic. See also: behaviorism, functionalism, empiricism, phenomenalism, non-reductive physicalism, anomalous monism, panpsychism, naturalism, identify theory and eliminativist.
   The Motor Theory of Consciousness considers consciousness primarily as an epiphenomenon or byproduct of delayed motor excitation. Author Ken Wilber argues for a multi-level form of consciousness which traverse a spectrum from lower to higher levels. The Integrated Informational Theory (ITT) of consciousness attributes the phenomenon to interactions among multiple, relevant reactions within the brain. . Quantum theories of consciousness, meanwhile, ascribe consciousness to characteristics associated with quantum physics such as superposition and quantum entanglement. Meme theory considers consciousness primarily as an illusion created in the brain by memes as a mechanism of replication. Electromagnetic theorists believe evidence exists to show that consciousness arises from electromagnetic fields produced in the brain. See: Consciousness Based On Wireless?
   Standford's encyclopedia entry on consciousness cites a number of other specific theories of consciousness and states: "Although there are many general metaphysical/ontological theories of consciousness, the list of specific detailed theories about its nature is even longer and more diverse." Listed are higher-order theories (categorized into higher order thought theories and higher order perception theories) representative theories, cognitive theories, neural theories, quantum theories, and non-physical theories.
   "The problem with minds and consciousness is that they remain so mysterious, so unlike anything else that we are familiar with, that it is altogether unclear what might count as relevant background information," author Ben Dupré writes. (50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need to Know, Quercus Publishing Plc., 2007, pg. 47).
   Douglas Hofstadter, author of Godel, Escher, Bach, and I Am a Strange Loop (Basic Books, New York, 2007, pg 19), questions our human sensibilities altogether as to what creatures are even deemed conscious enough to have value, compared to those which are not. In I Am a Strange Loop, Hofstadter lays out what he calls a "consciousness cone," suggesting a hierarchy of things or creatures which humans implicitly attribute various degrees of consciousness to. From the least to the greatest, these are atoms; viruses; microbes; mites; mosquitoes; bees; goldfish, chickens, bunnies, dogs, mentally retarded, brain-damaged and senile humans, and normal adult humans. He admits the list is only suggestive and not meant to be exact.
   "By virtue of our might, we are forced to establish some sort of ranking of creatures, whether we do so as a result of long and careful personal reflections or simply go along with the compelling flow of the masses," Hofstadter writes.
   Where should one start in seeking an answer to the puzzle?
   I would argue that it may not be so much a puzzle as a matter of proximity. We are, as it were, both observer and the observed. We are like tiny cogs inside a massive clockwork trying to determine where precisely the hands on the clock are positioned.
   Within us lies the ability to create and build using the faculty of imagination. In the mind are spawned a near infinite variety of constructs and scenarios in a mash up of fleeting images and memories. Do we in actuality fly around the moon the moment we imagine ourselves flying around the moon? Do we live forever because we imagine ourselves living forever? Does the mind exist in a parallel universe of eternal values and permanence unlike anything else on earth? In the minds of a great swath of human throughout the ages, apparently so. But where is the evidence?
   Even those theories which have climbed aboard the quantum physics train have yet to venture much beyond the realm of the theoretical and speculative, as rational sounding as they may be.
   "I believe that we will not be able to understand the physical basis of consciousness without including the principles of quantum physics and a very new concept of what constitutes the action of observation," author Fred Alan Wolf writes. (The Dreaming Universe, Simon and Schuster Inc., 1994. pg. 74).
   Whatever you do, I would suggest resisting the temptation to chisel your viewpoint into a tablet of stone, or treat as sacrosanct the views of anyone else who does. Considering the vast cognitive differences there are among people in general, including the many altered state of consciousness on record, it just doesn't seem wise.
   In Who's Afraid of Schrödinger's Cat? by Ian Marshal and Danah Zohar (Quill, William Morrow, 1997), the authors give this description of the divide: "Even if various neural theories eventual provide scientific answer to these questions, we are left with a philosophical disquiet. There is too much clash between the objective, scientific paradigm in terms of which we understand the brain—mass, length, electrical activity, and so on—and the more subjective paradigm in terms of which we understand ourselves--self-awareness, phenomenal space and time, intentionality, free will, an such. As currently understood, the two paradigms seem like chalk and cheese." (pg. 234).
   But does the nearly indescribable, nebulous nature of the conscious mind justify leaping to fantastic conclusions? Does it trivialize the beauty and value of life? My answer is no, but where answers are uncertain and desires rule, the imagination traditionally takes over.
   Could it be that consciousness is simply much less complicated than it seems, that it only appears magical (or spiritual), in the way that electromagnetic waves and magnetism can appear magical? Is consciousness merely the active product of a biological organism whose primary, evolutionary advantage stems from being able to produce hypothetical constructs in the mind, in order to make half-reliable decisions in a complex world?
   John R Burr and Milton Goldinger, editors of Philosophy and Contemporary Issues (Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1972), write in the introduction to their chapter on knowledge and science about the propensity of human beings to subjugate facts to feelings. Their argument is primarily about science-based knowledge, but it can equally apply to our discussion of consciousness.
   A central point: Excitement, amusement, power, ethnocentricity, wealth, national security and a host of other immediate human desires things are routinely placed on a higher plain than is the honest pursuit of genuine knowledge.
   As stated by Burr and Goldinger: "The great majority of men and women tolerate science, admire it, or revere it only to the degree and extent science is a necessary means to various desired nonscientific ends. When science fails to provide the necessary means, people turn to kinds of 'knowledge' other than the scientific. Does scientific psychology look dubiously upon extrasensory perception, does it cast doubt on the claim those messages really came from beloved Uncle Max dead these many years? The, scientific psychology is dogmatic, materialistic, too narrow, at best merely partial knowledge. Astronomy won't tell us if we will be lucky or unlucky today? Then astrology will. Does science seem to make it difficult to believe God exists? Then our hearts inform us he does exist. Does science fail to prove convincingly that we should all love one another and stop hating? Then mystical insight will."
   The realm of ideas and inner experiences that make up the conscious human mind may indeed be subjectively real, may be something that people desire to be objectively real, but even after hundreds of years of inquiry there remains a dearth of evidence to substantiate the claim that a person's conscious mind is anything but confined to their own fleeting neurological network. More apparent still is the ease with which the subjective human mind can deceive itself, intentionally corrupting the criteria it uses to differentiate substantive knowledge from mere superstition and magical thinking.

For further reading

Carl Sagan on God, Faith and Religion