Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Machine without the Ghost

It is common to believe today that human beings are nothing more than sophisticated machines. But there is a price to pay for this. If this is true, then what we call thought and consciousness are merely an illusion.  Therefore, thought, morality, and philosophy are merely projections of the underlying physical processes. The result is that I cannot know anything, including that I am merely the result of physical processes. Therefore, if I am to continue to think I am forced to reject this viewpoint. The question is, can I?

Now it is obvious that our mind is affected by the physical. If I drink large quantities of alcohol, it will affect the way I think. It is also clear that there is a connection between the mind and the piece of matter called the brain. But that does not prove that there is nothing involved but the physical. Yes, we have gone a long way in understanding parts of the brain. But until we completely understand its processes (and we have a long way to go on that), we cannot exclude the possibly of a real mind. Right now I am communicating using a computer. If that computer suddenly were to completely wig out, it would distort my communication. If I were aware of this, it could have affects on my attitude and mood. But that does not mean there is no me here pounding the keys. However, the connection of our mind and our brain is much more intimate then that. It is not surprising one should affect the other.

But often when we examine the brain we start with the assumption that there is nothing there except the physical. To understand this we need to go back to Rene Descartes.  Descartes believed that the mind was by nature a thinking thing and the body was by nature an extended thing. He tried to figure how the two could interact, and his solution was a thing called animal spirits, which no one knows what they are. As result, people accepted Descartes problem but rejected his solution. After a number of attempts to find a better solution, we were left with materialism.  But there is a problem. Whether thinking is the fundamental characteristic of the mind is arguable. But while we do not yet know what the fundamental nature of matter is, that it can be understood wholly in terms of extension (height, width, and depth) and motion, as Descartes believed, seems unlikely in the extreme. If Descartes's understanding of matter was true, it is difficult to see how an immaterial mind could interface with it. But on our current scientific understanding, immaterial things affect the behavior of matter all the time. Therefore, I see no reason why one more as yet undetected immaterial thing could not affect the material world. And since the existence of thought itself would appear to hang in the balance, I see no basis for dismissing the possibility out of hand.     

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