Note on Consciousness

I’m drawn to emergent individualism as a theory of consciousness – somewhat similar to Searle’s biological naturalism in that it grounds consciousness in the biological (but not solely in the biological), but avoiding the naturalism and allowing for the transcendant, particularly in the orientation of the mind (intentionality). As I understand it (and I’m a novice in the emergent world) various properties emerge when a physical system achieves a certain level of complexity, and this seems to me to be supported by the scientific data.

I always keep in mind the danger of conceptual confusions, especially in philosophy of mind.


Note on Perception, the Mind, Metaphysics, and Objects

I look at something, say, the table my feet rest on. I perceive the table. Is this purely a mental event (idealism)? Or is my perception that of a mind-independent object (realism)? If it were the latter, there would still be mental activity, obviously, even though the object itself is not mental. However, is the mind predisposed to reality or a blank slate of sorts? Chomsky did some interesting work in the linguistic arena that suggested that there is a universal sort of grammar hardwired into us. Perhaps this carries over into general perception? Perhaps we have (a la Kant) categories with which we impose order on the world of experience.

But suppose I were to suggest that it’s the world that imposes it’s categories onto us. T.F. Torrance goes into great detail on this subject, generally in relation to theology, but it applies to metaphysics as well. God is a reality independent of our thought or perception of Him, and based on His self-revelation we ‘generate’ concepts that are worthy of Him. We have to ‘unlearn’ (apophaticism) our preconceived ideas and allow the force of His reality to impress His own categories and concepts on our mind.

Could this apply to our knowledge of the external world as well? That as we come into relation to the being of objects, reality itself impressions its own concepts upon us? The worlds being forces itself on us as we attempt to penetrate into the nature of reality, forcing us to abandon our categories as we inquire more deeply.

Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure it makes sense to speak of all that without conceding that the mind is predisposed to reality (the fit of the intellect to reality, to use the medieval phrase. This isn’t to say that our mental operations create the reality we perceive (et esse percepti, I think is the phrase) but rather that our mental categories make sense of the world of sensory experience. Perhaps our categories can be abandoned or reshaped in the light of true being.

Some Thoughts on Thought

Every once in a while, I like to engage in some less-than serious philosophical thinking (by this I mean pure speculation with no serious intention of solving any problem or doing anything besides occupying some free time) – this particular time, it was about thought.

There was a great episode of Cowboy Bebop in which a cult sought immortality by uploading their souls (or minds, or selves, I don’t remember exactly) to the ‘web’. This has always been an interesting topic – one that’s received a lot better attention in sci-fi than in actual science, in my opinion. But at any rate, a really interesting subject. Every once in a while one hears about how our brains are really digital, or digital supercomputers, or something along those lines – pure nonsense, I say. Conceptual confusions, to take a page from Wittgenstein’s playbook. Stanley Jaki, in his book on the subject (entitled Brain, Mind, and Computers) commented that in every age, the mind/brain is conceived as whatever technology is most exciting, for lack of a better term. It’s been depicted as hydraulics, electrical circuits, waterworks, and in our time, its most often portrayed as a computer – unfortunately, there seems to be a rather negative side effect to this practice: it’s the tendency to take as real or concrete a metaphor that simply helps us grasp an abstract or puzzling or difficult concept.

But suppose that our self really can be uploaded to the web – again, one can find some serious discussions on this topic (seriously mistaken, in my view, but serious nonetheless) with a simple Google search. Would that pretty much end the mind/body debate (which, for the record, I think is a debate that is more misplaced that anything, but just for the sake of argument assume otherwise)? Would there be an aspect of us that is immaterial (I’m using immaterial in the classical sense – not as some weird kind of substance but in the more [say] Thomistic sense, such as the immaterial intellect)? Probably not, if its digital and can be uploaded to the internet – I have a hard time imagining how something digital can also be immaterial. So we’d end up being material objects and nothing more – our selves (or mind, or soul, or whatever you care to call it) is simply the material part of us that survives the death of our bodies. That doesn’t seem too coherent though, but who knows. Perhaps our digital self takes the place of the immaterial soul. Maybe the word ‘digital’ is just being redefined – kind of like the word ‘nothing’ in the contemporary debate about the origin of the universe. Definitely something to look into – though I think I trust the sci-fi writers to make more sense of such an idea than the science writers.

Pascal on Thought and the Universe

‘Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water, suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.’
― Blaise Pascal

‘Through space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like an atom; through thought I comprehend the world.’
– Blaise Pascal

The Universe and the Mind

‘Clearly, both science and natural theology demand a view of the mind in which justice is done both to the mind’s essential dependence on the body and to the mind’s ability to reach not only beyond its body but the totality of bodies, or the universe. For the conceptualization of such a view of the mind no single work, be it “soul” or something else, can do full justice. It can only be grasped by an unreserved commitment to that very richness which nature displays in man alone. Once this commitment is unhampered by empiricist and rationalist phobias, the thinking man will appear that slender reed which for all its fragility is stronger than all the matter in the universe. While the universe does not know man is able to know the universe, witnessing in more than one sense the truth of the phrase that knowledge is power.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p. 260)