Thursday, 29 January 2015

Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia

1.      Introduction

I read this article a couple of weeks ago by a professor of philosophy called John G Messerly.

He says:

There has been a dramatic change in the last few centuries in the proportion of believers among the highly educated in the Western world. In the European Middle Ages belief in a God was ubiquitous, while today it is rare among the intelligentsia. This change occurred primarily because of the rise of modern science and a consensus among philosophers that arguments for the existence of gods, souls, afterlife and the like were unconvincing. Still, despite the view of professional philosophers and world-class scientists, religious beliefs have a universal appeal. What explains this?

He advances the view that a combination of modern science and reason very strongly suggests that there is neither a God nor an afterlife. The intelligentsia understand this, but most of us have failed to take on board this knowledge. The author speculates that we resist these conclusions due to various genetic and environment factors.  He places a special emphasis on wishful thinking.

I want in this essay to concentrate on the notion of an afterlife and why so many of the “intelligentsia” consider it so unlikely in the light of modern science.  What knowledge and understanding do they possess that even the most intelligent people in the middle ages lacked?  Are they justified in their stance?  The short answer to that question is an emphatic no.  It will be my task in this essay to explain why the answer to that question is “no”. 

To accomplish this task we first need to understand the origins of modern science.  This will involve taking a brief look at the intellectual edifice -- namely the mechanistic philosophy -- which allowed the birth of modern science.  As we shall see, it is the mechanistic philosophy rather than modern science per se, which provided the groundwork for this profound shift in views.

2.     The Mechanistic Philosophy

Prior to the 17th Century there was a tendency to view the world as being ultimately mysterious. Lingering on from medieval times was the belief that the world was full of meaning - teeming with supernatural causes where angels and demons, spirits, occult powers and mystical principles played a prominent role. In particular God and an afterlife were a given. The scientific revolution inaugurated in the 17th Century, as well as being instrumental in creating our modern world together with its technological ubiquity, was also pivotal in eroding all these beliefs, and in particular fostered the notion of man as simply being a biological machine.

So what kicked off this scientific revolution? Essentially it was to start conceiving of reality in a particular way, namely the way encapsulated by what is referred to as the mechanistic philosophy. In the 16th and 17 centuries it was increasingly being noted that carefully conducted experiments tended to always produce the same results. This fostered the notion that reality behaved in a predictable manner. In addition, at that time, there was an idea percolating around that if an omnipotent God had created the Cosmos, and we were the reason for its creation, would God not make the Cosmos amenable to human intellect? In particular, would he not make the cosmos operate according to well-defined laws that we might discern?

Largely as a consequence of these factors the mechanistic philosophy was born. It can be expressed succinctly in 5 points:

1.    All action is by contact: no action at a distance.
2.    All objects in the Universe are composed of microscopic ultimately small parts (indivisible 'atoms').
3.    All change in nature and natural phenomena results from alterations in the configurations of matter.
4.    All change in the world is explicable in terms of unbroken chains of physical causes and effects.
5.    No teleology - that is events and processes are not governed by any purpose but simply are a result of mindless interactions with matter.

This mechanistic philosophy implied that any phenomena whatsoever can be wholly explained by the interactions of all its parts. This encapsulates the essence of what is called reductionism. The basic idea of reductionism is very simple. It is the belief that all phenomena, no matter how complex, can be understood by considering their most elementary parts. It is the motions of these parts and how they interact together which completely explain the phenomenon concerned. For example, consider a clockwork clock. By looking at the components of that clock - namely the cogs, the springs, and the wheels - and how they all interrelate together, we can actually understand how the minute and hour clock hands move.

If, as reductionism implies, all change in nature and natural phenomena results from alterations in the ultimately smallest particles of matter, then it follows that we human beings constitute no exception. This was understood as far back as the birth of the mechanical philosophy. At that time it was widely debated whether animals could be understood as being, in essence, mere biological machines. More radical thinkers took this to its logical conclusion and advocated that human beings too might simply be elaborate machines. Thus the entirely of our behaviour could in principle be understood through all the physical processes occurring in our bodies in addition to the input from the environment through our five senses. So if we are merely elaborate biological machines then this implies that no afterlife awaits us any more than an afterlife awaits a computer once it is irreparably damaged, or indeed awaits a clock.

The mechanistic philosophy fosters the view that although a complete explanation for what human beings are, why we are conscious, and so on, has yet to be determined, this merely reflects the complexity of the brain.  It is possibly the most complex thing in the Universe.  However we can be in no doubt that such an explanation will be forthcoming -- or so people claim.  After all look at the phenomenal progress of science over the past 300 years.  We can send men to the moon, create small devices which can virtually instantaneously connect us to anyone in the world with a similar device, create chess computers which can beat the best chess players on the planet.  Why do we imagine the human brain is something special?  That it won’t eventually be understood like everything else?  Hence many people maintain that it will surely succumb to a full explanation eventually – it’s just a question of time.

3. The elimination of the Qualitative/Subjective 

There is though a crucial distinction between us human beings and other animals on the one hand, and machines such as computers, clocks and the like on the other. It is that the former are conscious and the latter are generally held not to be (although it is held by many that computers will become conscious in the future). Given that we are mere biological machines, then it is true that the mechanical philosophy, and hence physics might, at least in principle, wholly explain our behaviour.  But to explain our behaviour is one thing, to explain our consciousness is another thing entirely.  But why should consciousness be a special problem?

Thomas Nagel is an American philosopher, currently University Professor of Philosophy and Law at
New York University.  In his recent book Mind and Cosmos he says:

The modern mind-body problem arose out of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, as a direct result of the concept of objective physical reality that drove that revolution. Galileo and Descartes made the crucial conceptual division by proposing that physical science should provide a mathematically precise quantitative description of an external reality extended in space and time, a description limited to spatiotemporal primary qualities such as shape, size, and motion, and to laws governing the relations among them. Subjective appearances, on the other hand -- how this physical world appears to human perception -- were assigned to the mind, and the secondary qualities like color, sound, and smell were to be analyzed relationally, in terms of the power of physical things, acting on the senses, to produce those appearances in the minds of observers. It was essential to leave out or subtract subjective appearances and the human mind -- as well as human intentions and purposes -- from the physical world in order to permit this powerful but austere spatiotemporal conception of objective physical reality to develop. (pp. 35-36)

Here in a nutshell is why science, at least as currently conceived, cannot in principle account for the existence of consciousness.  In order to make this clear let's flesh out what Nagel is saying here.  

The mechanistic philosophy stipulated that physical reality is wholly quantitative. That is to say that the external world that our five senses reveal is wholly composed of things and processes that can in principle be detected by our measuring instruments and thus can be measured. All change in this external world can be accounted for in terms of chains of physical causes and effects which are exclusively cashed out in quantitative terms.  So we have each physical event or thing comprising a link in the chain causing another physical event, and each link is comprised of something that can be measured -- for example mass, velocity, shape and so on.

But what of the qualitative features of reality?   We think of the external world as being filled with colours, sounds and smells.  Due to the fact that these features of reality are not detectable by our measuring instruments and hence are not measurable, it was assumed that they simply weren't part of the furniture of reality at all.  Instead colours, sounds and smells were redefined to stand for those measurable aspects of reality which were deemed to cause these qualitative experiences.  Thus a colour was redefined to refer to a certain wavelength of light that objects reflect. Sounds redefined to refer to rarefactions and compressions of the air. Smells redefined to refer to various molecules in motion.

So the qualitative aspects of reality were subtracted from the external world and placed into the mind.  And as Thomas Nagel mentioned human intentions and purposes were subtracted too.  Hence the world out there is wholly quantitative and devoid of anything qualitative. And hence unimaginable. The greenness you experience when looking at a green object is entirely a creation of your mind. The perceived object is not actually green at all in the commonsensical use of the word green.

4. Consciousness cannot in principle be accommodated by Science

Thus a consequence of the mechanistic philosophy is that it stipulated -- again I stress that this was not a discovery -- a very much emaciated conception of the physical external world. A bare skeletal outline denuded of the flesh of the qualitative.  But that brings with it a huge problem. If only the quantitative, or that which is detectable, constitutes the external world, how can we suppose that minds or consciousness are part of that reality?  Hence the mind-body problem.

Since almost everyone, including the "intelligentsia", has so much difficulty in understanding this, it might be a good idea to try and hammer this point home.

Let's return to the example of a clockwork clock brought up in section 2.  As mentioned previously, by looking at the components of that clock - namely the cogs, the springs, and the wheels - and how they all interrelate together, we can actually understand how the hour, and the minute hands move.  Each cause and each effect in the causal chain(s) leading to the movement of the hands are wholly quantitative, something which can be measured.  

The same pertains whenever we reach an understanding of some phenomenon.  Consider tornadoes for example.  They seem to be entities in their own right; they seem to act as organised wholes.  But this cannot be an analogy for consciousness since it remains the case that tornadoes are nothing more than the movement and interactions of all the air and water molecules which constitute them.  The number of parts constituting a tornado, and hence its complexity, doesn't allow it the possibility of producing anything beyond what a colossal number of particles are capable of producing, particularly not conscious experiences. So, similar to the clock, the tornado is the result of wholly quantitative processes and can be reductively explained.

But when we come to the brain and consciousness we have something very different.  If the brain does indeed produce consciousness, then we have chains of quantitative causes and effects which at the end of these chains produce purely qualitative phenomena; namely conscious experiences. But then this contradicts the mechanistic philosophy since it stipulates that reality is wholly quantitative.  And hence consciousness also eludes any possible physical theory since physics deals exclusively with the quantitative or that which can be measured.

To try and explicate this fact yet further what we have is a chain of physical causes and effects following physical laws, and at the end a conscious experience such as the experience of pain.  Unlike our clock or tornado, where we can always understand, at least in principle, how an effect is brought about by a thorough understanding of the arrangements and properties of their parts, we cannot have a similar understanding with consciousness.  All we can note is that when certain physical events occur in the brain, this might be correlated with a certain characteristic experience -- an experience moreover which can only be known by the subject. Consciousness is not objectively detectable.

5. Consciousness is what the brain does

One way of putting consciousness back into the world is to claim that it is literally one and the very same thing as some physical thing or process (not merely caused by a physical process). I think this is an act of desperation.  

We think of the world as being populated with objects.   Sometimes what we think of 2 different objects are in fact one and the same object e.g. the morning star and evening star.  However we can trace their paths through space-time and see that they coincide.  However we cannot do this with brain processes and conscious experiences. We can trace the formers path in space-time, but not the latter.

Also if 2 objects are in fact the very same object, they should share very similar properties.  It's true that one and the same object can change its properties over time e.g. a spanking brand new table will not look quite the same 20 years down the line, although they'll look broadly similar.

But physical states and the correlated conscious experiences exist at the same time.  However they are utterly different in their properties.  The former is characterised by the quantitative and is observable from a third person perspective.  The latter is characterised by the qualitative and is not observable from the third person perspective -- it is only known through the experiencing subject.  Since conscious experiences share no commonality with any physical states or processes whatsoever, it is gratuitous and vacuous to declare they're one and the very same thing.

6. But does the brain produce consciousness anyway?

Even though, being qualitative through and through, consciousness is non-physical, the foregoing should not be understood as suggesting that the brain cannot produce consciousness.  It's just that if it does, then that's simply a brute fact about reality.  It must remain forevermore a mysterious fact that brains somehow produce consciousness. 

In fact we have good reasons to suppose that the brain produces consciousness and these reasons come in the form of mind-brain correlations.  Just to mention a few examples; our capacity to understand written and spoken words, or the capacity to speak, are impaired or even eliminated with injuries to certain regions of the brain. Damage to the hippocampal and thalamic areas of the brain can destroy one's ability to store new long-term memories. In addition radical personality change may be brought about by injury to the brain. The most famous example here is undoubtedly
Phineas Gage. We can also point to the effects of drugs that have a propensity to affect our emotions, attitudes and dispositions. Indeed even alcohol and caffeine do this.  Most importantly we enter deep sleep every night where we do not seem to be conscious at all.

To return yet again to our clock analogy.  Let's suppose we have a thorough understanding of the properties and arrangement of its parts.  There's nothing about the arrangements of these parts which could account for the fact it sounds an hourly alarm.  In addition let's suppose that removing a particular component of the clock results in it not sounding the alarm.  And replacing that component but removing another component also results in it not sounding the alarm. But removing other components one at a time has no effect. So even though the reason why it sounds an alarm might be wholly mysterious, we have, so it seems, specified critical components whose presence are essential to causing the alarm.  We might therefore feel justified in supposing that such critical components jointly produce the hourly alarm.

It might well be that something similar is happening with brains and consciousness.  Science can never in principle explain why brains produce consciousness, but this needn't prevent us, in the absence of any other reasons, from supposing that it is specific parts of the brain which are somehow producing this phenomenon. It seems to me that this is especially compelling when we consider the comatose state, or even the deep sleep state we enter every night where we do not recollect any conscious experiences.  This at least suggests that the brain is playing a crucial role in whether we are conscious or not.  The most straightforward explanation for this is that the brain produces consciousness.

7. The implausibility of the brain producing consciousness thesis.


As a preliminary I should point out that the case for the brain producing consciousness outlined in the previous section would not curry much favour amongst the “intelligentsia”.  It is deeply unsatisfactory since consciousness spontaneously appearing without explanation when certain physical processes occur seems essentially magical.  Hence, the tendency to conflate conscious experiences with some physical process, thing or function.  A strategy I have already argued in part 5 as being gratuitous and vacuous.  Nevertheless we may feel that the arguments of the previous section make it extremely likely that brains do somehow produce consciousness.  So let's explore this further.

In the previous section I mentioned removing components of a clock and noting that should the alarm cease then these components might justifiably be supposed to be jointly producing the alarm.  Let's replace our clock with a Television set.  Removing certain components of the TV set will result in the picture disappearing, and generally tinkering with the internal components will affect the quality of the picture displayed.  So we might suppose that at least some of the components produce the picture. 

But it’s not quite as simply as this since there is a distinction between the TV set’s ability to display a sequence of pictures, and the form those pictures take.  On a standard TV set it would be scientifically inexplicable why it should display a sequence of pictures constituting a TV programme without reference to TV signals.

Likewise, since it is scientifically inexplicable, indeed in principle, that the processes of the brain produce consciousness our preference ought to be that something external is involved. But, unlike the case of the TV set which explains the sequence of pictures shown by virtue of TV signals, this external influence accounting for consciousness couldn't be anything physical since we simply get the same intractable scientific problem of the quantitative creating the qualitative. It would need to be some non-physical influence -- perhaps a self or "soul" which has, as an essential property, conscious states. 

In short, in a comparable way in which the internal components of a standard TV set is insufficient to explain the sequence of pictures being shown, it seems to me that the brain itself is insufficient to produce consciousness.  In both cases something external is required.  The fact that altering brain function changes our conscious states and abilities, or indeed even suppresses any consciousness completely, doesn't entail that the self which undergoes and underlies and unites these various conscious states is itself affected.  Compare this with the fact that fiddling with the internal components of a TV set might affect the picture, but which in no shape or form alters the TV programme being screened (See my essay Is a "life after death" conceivable? for an explication of what I mean by these ideas).

8. Conclusion

I have pointed out that consciousness must forevermore remain scientifically inexplicable, at least as science is currently conceived.  However the mind-brain correlations and the apparent complete dependency of mind states on brain states might dispose one to feel the brain produces consciousness anyway.  Nevertheless this still remains deeply unsatisfactory and it seems to me a new way of conceiving consciousness and its relationship to the world is required.  Since something extra over and above the brain seems to be required, this suggests that we might well survive our deaths.

Note that in reaching this conclusion I have made no mention whatsoever of any of the evidence which suggests an afterlife (NDEs, apparitions, memories of previous lives etc).  The possibility that consciousness might well survive the deaths of our bodies has been established purely by philosophical argumentation.  Once we take such evidence into consideration the case for a "life after death" becomes that much stronger.

9. So why do the "Intelligentsia" believe otherwise?

But then what are we to make of the comment by John G Messerly at the beginning of this essay?  With just a few exceptions professional philosophers, professional scientists, and more generally the "intelligentsia", are all united in thinking that modern science has shown there is no afterlife and it is only foolish and ignorant people who suppose otherwise.

But, as I have argued, this is wholly contrary to what is actually the case!  Are the "intelligentsia" all unaware of the history and philosophy of science and the mind-body problem?  Are they all unable to think through the issues? 

I think the problem here is that science has been so incredibly successful in describing the world that the "intelligentsia" conclude that it is reasonable to infer that the methods of science are susceptible to explaining all aspects of reality, including consciousness -- a position sometimes referred to as scientism. Couple this with the fact that scientists tend to be quite poor at philosophy, but yet at the same time enjoy a high level of prestige, and we have at least part of an answer.  For their opinions carry weight.  Hence when they continually extol the outstanding successes of science, but at the same time depreciate the value of philosophical thought claiming it doesn't deliver the goods, we have fertile grounds for reaching fatuous conclusions.  Fatuous conclusions, moreover, not just about how consciousness fits into the physical world, but on more general questions pertaining to the nature of reality which rightfully belongs to the province of philosophy.

Professional philosophers operate in this environment that scientists have created.  Those that offer dissenting views are ferociously attacked.  The most notable recent example is
Thomas Nagel's recent book Mind and Cosmos, which I mentioned and quoted in section 3.  For example Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson in this article says:

As often happens when a philosopher deviates from scientific orthodoxy, Nagel’s book has been thoroughly denounced. Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg, in their highly critical review for The Nation, led the charge, asking, “Are we really supposed to abandon a massively successful scientific research program because Nagel finds some scientific claims hard to square with what he thinks is obvious?” Elliott Sober, in the Boston Review, wrote “[Nagel] argues that evolutionary biology is fundamentally flawed and that physics also needs to be rethought—that we need a new way to do science.” Nonetheless, says Sober, “Nagel acknowledges that he has no teleological theory of his own to offer. His job, as he sees it, is to point to a need; creative scientists, he hopes, will do the heavy lifting.”

A defence of Nagel's book from his varied detractors by
Edward Feser,  an American associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College, may be found here (the link is merely part 1 of 10 parts!).

Thus there are pressures -- subtle and not so subtle -- for philosophers to conform to mainstream thinking.  Those who rise to the top in the academic community are liable to express views consonant with the prevailing orthodoxy -- for if they do not then they will be less likely to have risen to such a position in the first place.  So certain beliefs about the world tend to be perpetuated, not necessarily because of their underlying merits, but because there are influences actively discouraging the expression of views which are at variance with generally accepted beliefs.

On a final note, I recommend people read my related essays:

Science and the Afterlife

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A ridiculous conception of God.

As a preliminary readers might be interested in another blog entry by myself where I make an analogy between our minds and God's mind. 

I want to employ and extend an analogy I first used here to try and dispel some of the apparent misunderstanding between atheists and, at least some, theists.

Let's suppose that in the future the bots in a computer game become conscious. Some bots think their world (computer game environment) is designed and a creation of some intelligence, others do not (let's call them atheists).

The atheist bots assume that should there be a creator/designer of their world, then it must be some entity within their computer game environment. That is to say any designer must either equate effectively to some particularly coloured pixels, or failing this to at least influence the environment in some way. However since no such coloured pixels have ever been detected, and their world operates according to discernible rules (physical laws), they regard it as being highly unreasonable to believe in the existence of a designer.  Certainly if there is such a designer then the onus is upon those who suppose he exists to supply some evidence for his existence.

However many of the theist bots think that this concept of a designer is utterly ridiculous and think of a designer in the correct sense -- namely a computer programmer who exists outside of their reality (game world) altogether.  However they do disagree and quarrel about the name and personality of the designer (programmer).

The take home message from this analogy is that we should really try to get away from the ideas that should a "God" exist then he/it is some entity which exists within reality, and that he/it intervenes with physical laws (a so-called "God of the gaps").  It is just as ludicrous for us to entertain such a conception of "God" as it is for the bots to entertain such a conception of a designer for their game world.  Moreover, for the bots, the question of whether a designer exists, is not a question which could be answered by their science.  Their science deals with the regularities of their world and therefore could only address the concept of a designer should that designer exist within their reality.  The exact same applies to us.  The question of whether there is a creator, where that creator exists outside our physical reality, is not in principle something which could be addressed by our science. It is a purely metaphysical issue.

In addition, although the disagreements between the various religions might at some level be interesting, this really doesn't have any implications for the existence of some type of "God", at least not if we construe such a "God" in the minimal sense as a creator or designer of our world.  Compare this to the scenario where the bots disagree about the name and personality of the computer programmer.  It would be absurd to maintain that this suggests that no one created their world at all!

This conception of "God" as being wholly outside of our physical reality, or that our physical reality exists "within" God, also dispenses with the  requirement that it is
incumbent upon the theist to demonstrate that a creator exists. Why?  First of all we need to understand why the burden of proof is normally on those who claim that something exists.

In our observations of the world we note that the Universe appears to be described by physical laws.  It seems that these laws have universal applicability -- that is the very same laws apply throughout the Universe.   Hence we know what entities to expect and what not to expect -- thus our expectation is that stars will have planets orbiting them, and not flying teapots.  In short, if someone asserts that x exists, but x would be unexpected given our understanding of physical laws, then the burden of proof ought to be on the one making the assertion.  Note though that strictly speaking there is no distinction between positive and negative assertions. Hence we surmise there are galaxies beyond the cosmic horizon even though in principle we can never detect them. So, contrary to what people maintain, the burden of proof is not on the one asserting something exists, but rather it's on the one asserting something exists which we would not expect given our understanding of physical laws.

But clearly this does not apply to any existent which resides outside physical reality.  Either our physical reality came into existence through a conscious external agent --  some type of creator, although such a creator need not necessarily correspond to what we typically think of as "God" -- or the Universe, Multiverse or whole physical shebang came about as a brute fact with no cause.  Whichever hypothesis pertains arguments need to be advanced to justify ones position on this issue.

Related to this is the fact that many self-proclaimed atheists assert that they merely lack a belief in any type of "God" rather than disbelieve in a "God".   However, if one lacks a belief in whether there is a creator, then necessarily one also lacks a belief in the converse.  That is they also lack a belief in the supposition the Universe came into being as a brute fact.  This is contrary to how atheism was originally understood as being the position of supposing that most likely there is no entity or reality corresponding to what one might label "God".

Friday, 26 December 2014

An afterlife is so fanciful!

I think that many people would tend to think that the idea of an afterlife is certainly appealing, but that logic and reason compel them to conclude that the whole notion is rather implausible and totally opposed to what science tells us about the world.  Many other people might profess a belief in an afterlife, but this is in spite of, not because of their reason.  They might feel they must be something beyond this life and there must be a reason or purpose to their existence.

I am the diametric opposite to this.  It seems to me that reason and evidence very strongly supports the notion we survive the deaths of our bodies (and science most emphatically does not tell us there's no afterlife!), but my feeling is that the notion is very fanciful.  We go to sleep every night and enter deep sleep where it seems we are scarcely conscious at all.  It is hard for me to imagine that at the threshold of death, as my consciousness slowly diminishes to nothingness, I will ascend into some new reality and regain full consciousness.

A few years ago, in response to my belief in an afterlife, a friend of mine exclaimed "it's cold!"  By this I surmise he meant that the world we are experiencing now is reality.  It's cold, it's gritty and the notion that we'll ascend to some strange new world after we die is fanciful in the extreme.

Saying it's cold as a reason for disbelieving in an afterlife is of course fatuous, and yet . . and yet . . I understand perfectly where he's coming from.  It does at least feel to me to be rather implausible.  I believe in an afterlife not because of my feelings, but in spite of them. 

Friday, 28 November 2014

Science and the Afterlife

It seems to be widely believed that modern science has shown that there is no afterlife, that this life is the only one we will have, that only this physical world exists and only gullible people are disposed to question such established truths.

This is a complete travesty of what is actually the case.  What very few people seem to know, or  understand, is that science completely leaves out consciousness in its description of reality.  Indeed, so far as science is concerned, we might as well all be what has been termed philosophical zombies  -- that is to say we might as well all be entirely devoid of any conscious experiences whatsoever, even though we externally look and behave exactly like real people.

This is because it is held that we are merely very sophisticated biological machines.  Thus it is the physical events in our brains, together with the input from our 5 senses, which wholly explains everything we ever do, say, and think.  In and of itself consciousness is not regarded as having any causal efficacy.  Hence I am typing this out, not because of an intent on my part to express certain ideas, but due to physical laws playing out.

Now materialists deny this, but only by advancing a transparently false metaphysical hypothesis.  This hypothesis is that consciousness is the very same thing as the underlying neuronal activity, or it is the very same thing as what the brain does.  Note here they are not saying that such processes causes or produces consciousness, rather consciousness is one and the very same thing as some physical process.

It seems to me transparently clear that such a claim is vacuous.  Physical things and processes are characterised by mass, electric charge  and so on. They have a location, they can be measured and anyone can potentially observe them.    Conscious experience, on the other hand, is wholly defined by its qualitativeness -- the pain of a toothache, the taste of Pepsi, the experience of greenness, the feeling of contentment  -- all these are paradigmatic examples of conscious experiences, or qualia as they are sometimes referred to.  Most importantly ones consciousness can only be known by you, no one else can observe your pain, your jealousy and so on.   Since physical processes and conscious experiences have absolutely nothing in common whatsoever, then to say they are one and the very same thing is simply an abuse of language (although of course it is still possible one can cause the other, and vice versa).

The truth of the matter is that we have this philosophical problem called the mind/body problem.  It's persisted for thousands of years and we are no closer to solving it now in the 21st Century than we have ever been.  The proposed materialist solutions are acts of desperation.

The truth is that consciousness exists in its own right.  And we cannot perceive anyone else's consciousness, we can only infer it from their bodily behaviour.  So consciousness itself is invisible, we only infer its presence in other people via the voluntary movement of their bodies and their speech.  When their bodies cease to function at death nothing can be definitively concluded about the consciousness which formerly was able to move that body.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Mathematics, Education and School

I have just started watching a TV programme about peoples' numerical skills in the UK. It claims that around half the adult population has the mathematics ability of a primary school child (ages 5-11 I think).  So if half of the population has learnt nothing about maths from 11 onwards, then it seems to follow that no purpose was served in them attending maths classes from the age 11 onwards.  At least not in terms of their education.

This seems to me to be a deplorable situation when we consider that mathematics is the second most important skill that we should acquire at school; the most important of course being English Language. There again many peoples' English language skills are also equally abysmal and they don't seem to have learnt much in this subject after 11 years old either.

Yet people harp on about how incredibly important school is and claim it's disadvantageous for a child even if he or she misses a single day. Well, if we are to believe this statistic, then at least for half of us this doesn't appear to be true.

Consider also that apart from holidays children are required to attend school 5 days a week from 9am-4pm (in my day, might be 9-3 now?). It seems to me that to a significant degree we are robbed of our childhood and in engaging in childhood pleasures such as playing, or reading, or doing any one of innumerable pleasurable things. Instead we are compelled to sit in classrooms where a significant proportion of us learn very little and are presumably bored to tears. To rub it in further UK Government ministers keep proposing that children should attend school at an earlier and earlier age, and do more homework!

Although this might sound surprising to many, I actually regret not playing truant in my school days. I learnt next to nothing before the age of around 14.  In all honestly being compelled to attend school up to the age of 14 was a lamentable disgraceful waste of my childhood.

It seems to me there's something really seriously wrong with the whole system. I've asked many people what a 1/3 divided by a 1/9 equals.   A good majority of people give me the wrong answer -- most often 1/27.  This suggests that they either do not understand what a fraction is, do not understand what "divide" means, or quite possibly do not understand what either word means.  The answer is of course 3.  1/3 divided by a 1/9 means how many times does 1/9 go into 1/3.  Since 3/9 is another way of expressing 1/3, then the answer is 3.

And many people use "your" rather than "you're", loose rather than lose, "noone" rather than "no one", there instead of their or they're.  The list goes on and on.  I should hasten to add that my grammatical skills are not particular impressive, but the good majority of people have even worse skills in this area.

I don't know the methods by which children have been taught in recent years.  But clearly -- at least for mathematics and English language -- a serious rethink in how children are taught these subjects is in order.  It also seems to me that reducing the hours we attend school might be a good idea -- perhaps attending 9am- 12pm for 5 days a week.  It frees up more time for children to pursue activities of their own choosing, and possibly might ignite a greater interest, and hence a greater understanding in the subjects being taught if  they are not being continually exposed to the same subject matter.  I'm interested in the philosophy of mind, but if I were compelled to think and write about it for hours every day, then that flame of interest might well be in danger of diminishing. 

Friday, 24 October 2014

I want and I feel . .

I just feel really down when I go into a hospital, or Job Centre, or anywhere where people are studiously working and it's all quietish.

I want to be in the middle of the countryside lying deep down in the long deep grass with the glorious sunshine shining down on my face, with endless green glades and my soulmate gazing down deep into my eyes, full of endless love and compassion. I want to feel that everything is wonderful and everything will come right at the end.

I want to feel that life is one wonderful adventure. I want everything to come right at the end. I want . . I want . . an ultimate point to my beingness, to the Universe, to all things.
And yes I've been drinking a fair few pints . . . so what . .

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Meaning or Purpose?

There seems to be a lot of talking at cross purposes when people who believe in a "God" and a "life after death" argue with materialists/atheists.  Many of the former claim that if the atheists/materialists are right, then there is no meaning to life so we might as well just kill ourselves now.   Many atheists, on the other hand, seem to be genuinely bewildered by this and claim that of course there is meaning to life!  We form friendships and relationships with others, achieve various goals, experience many pleasures.  And even after death our lives might not have been in vain since we will have affected many other peoples' lives, hopefully for the better!

I want to draw a distinction between the words "purpose" and "meaning".  If there is no "God", no "life after death", and we are merely complex biological machines, then I would submit our lives have no purpose.  By this I mean that there is no ultimate goal to our lives.  There is no becoming one with "God" or whatever form that purpose might take.  That is to say that we live out our lives, and they might well be very satisfactory in terms of pleasures experienced, various satisfactions attained, but ultimately there is no reason for ones existence over and above that which we ourselves give to our lives.  On the other hand our lives certainly have meaning due to the aforementioned positive aspects to our existence.

But is having meaning, but no purpose to our lives, enough

Although I emphatically disagree with Bertrand Russell in the following quote that we are compelled to accept the conclusion he outlines, he nevertheless nicely captures the dissatisfactory consequence of accepting that our lives have no purpose.

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation be safely built.
Bertrand Russell (from A Free Man's Worship, 1903)
If we are mere biological machines, then yes, life has meaning.  And I find it absurd for people to suggest that if there is no "God" etc we might as well just kill ourselves now.   But nevertheless it remains the case that the Universe and our lives are ultimately to no avail.   Whatever goals are achieved, whatever satisfactions are attained, whatever pleasures we experience, ultimately it is all pointless in the grand scheme of things.  Eventually the last human being will die, the last sentient being on Earth will die and eventually the earth will be swallowed up by the Sun when it ends its life as a red giant. 

With the death of the Earth we might legitimately conclude that the whole history of the human race -- every thought, every action, every emotion experienced -- might as well never have occurred.

If we gravitate towards materialism perhaps it is best to put aside such thoughts and lose ourselves in our day to day lives; care about the concrete things in life such as making a living, forming relationships, and just marvel at our fortune to be priveleged to have this brief spark of sentience before the veil of forever nothingness descends upon us.