23 February 2015

A new beginning

I might be leaving The A-Unicornist, but I'm still writing! Check out my new blog/website:

The Mind of Mike D

aaaand the accompanying Fakeboobs page:

The Mind of Mike D

Unlike The A-Unicornist, this new blog is meant to be more personal; rather than dedicate a blog to this category or that, it's essentially a place for me to share whatever is on my mind. If you've been following this blog for my thoughts on religion and philosophy, there will certainly be plenty of that; but the topics covered by The A-Unicornist reflect only a small part of who I am, so I thought it was about time my blog was more... me.

13 February 2015

Life is beautiful: A fond farewell

As the new year has started, I've had to think hard about what is most important to me in my life. More clients at work has meant less time at home, and less time to divide between my passions. Far and away my greatest passion is guitar, and I've resolved this year to spend much more time practicing regularly. Of course my wife comes first and foremost, and quality time with her must take priority over... well, everything.

I thought last year that I'd continue The A-Unicornist on a semi-regular basis. I even still have some material drafted that's very close to being finished. But after some reflection, I've realized that The A-Unicornist simply is no longer representative of this chapter in my life. I've little interest in answering religious apologetics (been there, done that) or attempting to articulate ideas that are expressed more eloquently by others. This blog has been instrumental in helping me think critically about a great many topics, and I've enjoyed the challenges to my views from those across all spectra of religious and political views. Nonetheless, there are some simple truths that compel me to move on: I'm happy with who I am, I love my life, and I have nothing to prove to anyone else.

I was thinking the other day, quite randomly, about the utter vastness of our universe. It's filled with a hundred billion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. Here we are, in an infinitesimal spec of time and space, with only a short time to savor our fortunate existence. It's not often we stop to think just how amazing it is that we're here, such a fortunate turn of evolution and a triumph over life on the brink of extinction.

We humans can be quite arrogant, and think it was all put here for us — that we're special snowflakes, imbued with a divine purpose greater than what we make for ourselves. But while there is great grandeur and beauty in the universe, there is also great emptiness, suffering, and death. Acknowledge this reality ought to make us recognize our privileges — to live in comfort, to have the luxury of pondering life's great mysteries, to enjoy music and art and poetry, to revel in the awesomeness of nature, to spend time close to our loved ones.

As I start this new chapter in my life, I'm reminded that I have so much to cherish. I'm fortunate to live a truly happy and simple life. Because our time is short, we must choose carefully what is most important to us. For me, it's my wife, my family and friends, our pets, my music, my health, and of course steak (my only true religion). It's hard to imagine myself leaving writing behind for good, but this blog and the dialogue that flows from it is no longer the right outlet for me.

So, dear readers, I bid you a fond farewell. I won't disappear from the internet or anything; I'm sure I'll pop up in Disqus threads from time to time, and my list of bookmarked blogs remains unchanged. I'll continue to post on the Facebook page for this blog, in part by digging into the archives. And if and when I get around to finishing any of the umpteen books I've drafted, I'll promote them here and possibly even sell them directly. Thank you for reading, for being a part of such a memorable chapter in my life, and for both challenging me and supporting me. I apologize for the unfinished work, but hey — just go read Philosophy in the Flesh, Where Mathematics Comes From, and Metaphors We Live By (all by Lakoff) and you'll know exactly what was on my mind anyway.


"The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true." — Carl Sagan

25 January 2015

Does Time Exist? (Or, how Aristotle got metaphor wrong)

I remember some time ago hearing the physicist Sean Carroll, who's written quite a bit on the subject of time, mention that he and a colleague of his, fellow physicist Julian Barbor, disagreed strongly on the existence of time. Being physicists, they're debating the subject purely from the perspective of whether time can or should be disregarded from equations. But what about the broader idea that time doesn't really exist?

Obviously, it seems prima facie absurd. Time is an absolutely central and fundamental part of the human experience. It's integral to virtually every scientific field, and has been a topic of philosophical musings for millennia. How can time not exist?

But wait a second... couldn't the same have been said of color? Color is a deeply seated part of our phenomenological experience, but cognitive neuroscience has shown that color does not exist "out there", so to speak — that is, it is not a property that inheres in the world, but is an interactional property between wave lengths, light-sensitive cones in our eyes, and our brains [1]. What if time is something similar? Not "out there", inhering in the universe itself, but an interactional property dependent on embodied brains?


Aristotle on metaphor

Let's back up (that's a metaphor). The philosopher Aristotle believed that metaphor was poetic and rhetorical, and not part of our everyday language or fundamental to the process of reasoning. In The Poetics, he wrote,
Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else; the transference being either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, on the grounds of analogy. 
In other words, he thought that metaphor occurred when words which have a specific meaning and use were used in other circumstances, that it was a novel — not fundamental — linguistic expression. Or, as Lakoff puts it in Philosophy in the Flesh,
Metaphor [according to Aristotle] is a matter of words, not thought. Metaphor occurs when a word is applied not to what it normally designates, but to something else.
Empirical evidence has shown Aristotle to be profoundly mistaken. Metaphor is a process of thought, not merely of words. And there is perhaps no better example of this than time.


Time as a metaphor

If time exists as a property of the universe unto itself, wholly independent of human minds, then it seems we do not have direct access to it through our senses alone. For us, time expresses a relationship between events and we cannot think about it without embodied metaphor. Even physicists like Sean Carroll, who defines the "arrow of time" as the increasing entropy of the universe, are employing a metaphor (since arrows are objects that go from one place to another in a straight line) to describe a relationship between events.

In our everyday language, we conceptualize time as expressing a relationship between objects in motion. We use metaphors that derive from our embodied, spatial experience — forward, backward, behind, in front of, toward, through, etc. There are, broadly speaking, two embodied metaphors of time that we generally employ.

  1. Stationary-observer metaphor. In this metaphor, the observer does not move. Time is conceptualized as objects moving in relation to the observer. The objects are events. Events in the future are objects which move closer to the observer, and objects in the past are moving away from the observer. The observer faces toward the future events, and faces away from the past events. If the observer is contemplating the past, they may "look back" on events behind them.
  2. Moving-observer metaphor. In this metaphor, time is conceptualized like a river or road, and the observer is traveling along it. As before, events in the future face the observer and events in the past are behind the observer, but in this metaphor they are points that the observer reaches as they travel along the road or the river. The perceived speed of time can be conceptualized as varying by describing the type of path, such as a road that "meanders" or a river that "rushes".
Examples of (1):
  • "I'm looking forward to my vacation. It's coming up soon!"
  • "The deadline is approaching quickly."
  • "I feel happy when I look back on my years in college."
Examples of (2):
  • "We're coming up fast on the last week of classes." (Notice that the same phrase, coming up, is used with a different subject depending on the metaphor)
  • "The day just flew by!"
  • "Could this meeting drag on any longer?"
These are a few of dozens, if not hundreds, of examples. Not only is metaphor part of our everyday language — and not, as Aristotle thought, simply poetic and rhetorical — but it's absolutely integral to our very ability to abstract a concept such as time.  

When philosophers engage in speculating about the 'metaphysics' of time, they're choosing from the cognitive subconscious a pre-existing metaphorical conceptualization of time. They then, using a pre-determined set of logical axioms, work out the consequences of the metaphor according to those particular axioms. The consequences will vary according to the set of axioms used. The whole time, they've taken the metaphor to be literal, and ultimately declare that they're arrived at a deep 'truth' about reality. Lakoff expounds further (hey, that's an embodied metaphor too!):

When the concept [of time] itself is defined by metonymy and multiple metaphors, it is odd to ask what the objectively real correlate of that concept is. If you insist on asking that question, you will wind up doing one of the things that philosophers have typically done: choosing some aspect of the concept that you want to focus on and claiming that that one aspect really is time, either time as a flow, or time as a continuous unbounded line, or time as a linear sequence of points, or time as a single spatial-like dimension in a mathematical theory of physics. What you will probably not be able to do is arrive at a single, unified, objective, literal understanding of that subject matter that does full justice to all aspects of the concept.

This doesn't mean that metaphor renders time meaningless; far from it. Just as color is an essential part of our phenomenological experience even if it does not inhere in the universe, metaphors of time are absolutely essential to our phenomenological experience, our conceptualization and understanding of science, and to our process of reasoning.

So, does time really exist? I think it's perfectly sensible to say it does, since it's such an essential part of our experience (see "non-eliminative physicalism"). But it may be most sensible to say that "time" is ultimately an emergent, interactional property that arises from the cognitive subconscious, and not a property that inheres in the universe itself independently of our embodied brains.

15 January 2015

Toward an Understanding of the Mind: We Think in Metaphors

Traditional philosophies of mind have held several tenets about the nature of human reason. A (very) abridged list:

  • Reason is literal, abstract, and fundamentally unembodied. This does not mean that we don't take in sensory data from our bodies to think; rather, it means that the process of reasoning is not fundamentally connected to our embodiment, such as the contemplation of abstract forms. 
  • Reason is primarily conscious, and we can understand our minds through critical self-reflection.
  • Metaphor is primarily poetic and rhetorical, and not part of everyday language or fundamental to our process of reasoning.
The findings of cognitive neuroscience reveal all of these tenets, and many more, to be flatly and irreparably wrong. Cognitive neuroscience reveals that:
  • Reason is almost entirely subconscious, and is structured by metaphors.
  • These metaphors are physical connections in the brain which depend on our embodiment.
  • We cannot choose which metaphors structure our process of reasoning.
To understand how we think in metaphors, it's helpful to first understand what parts of our cognition are not metaphorical. Quite a bit of our conscious experience is indeed literal: these are spatial-relations concepts like up, down, over, under, through, left, right, etc.; proprioceptive concepts like reaching, touching, feeling, listening, seeing, tasting, etc.; and structural concepts like more, less, wider, narrower, etc. Notably, all of these aspects of cognition are directly tied to our embodiment. This is a key concept that will be expanded upon shortly.

These literal concepts form the skeletal structure of metaphorical reasoning, which is part of our everyday language and absolutely fundamental to the process of reasoning itself. One of the most striking finding of cognitive science is that it is virtually impossible for us not to think in metaphors. The most basic of these metaphors are called primary metaphors, in which a sensorimotor operation is paired with a subjective experience. Importantly, these primary metaphors are physical connections in the brain. I'll give just a few examples:

1. Love is closeness
It was a difficult time for us, but ultimately my wife and I have grown closer to each other
They were best friends for years, but recently have drifted apart

2. More is bigger
He's got a huge ego
The store had a big sale yesterday

3. Knowing is grasping
That flew over my head
Ah, now I've got it

Importantly, these metaphors are also frequently paired with physical gestures. These types of gestures transcend language and are found throughout the human experience. For example, if you said, "prices went through the roof" and pointed sideways, your audience would be confused about your meaning. Intuitively, you point upward. You wouldn't pair saying "Ah, now I've got it" with a waving of your hands in the air; you'll gesture with a closing fist as though physically grasping an object. If someone asks you how much you like cookies, you won't say "I love them!" while moving your hands close together; you'll stretch your arms out wide! All human beings use these same primary metaphors, regardless of language.

The formation of these primary metaphors happens very early in our childhood, as two different regions of the brain are repeatedly activated simultaneously. For the "love as closeness" metaphor, a child experiences the physical sensations of affection — being gently touched, held, kissed, etc., with spatial proximity. Again, physical gestures become important; we don't say "I love you" while pushing someone away; we usually say the word while hugging, touching, etc. This metaphor becomes a permanent connection in the brain and is used throughout our lives in narratives about loving relationships. 

The statement that this is a physical connection in the brain is not something can be swept under the rug (that's a metaphor) by claiming it's a fortunate correlation. This is because scientists who study embodied cognition successfully predicted that the neural circuitry responsible for sensorimotor perception was the same circuitry responsible for the formation of primary metaphors [1].  

A profoundly important aspect of this development is that the formation of these primary metaphors is entirely subconscious. You did not have any say over what metaphors structure your language and process of reasoning. We use primary metaphors with regard to time ("my birthday is just around the corner", "I'm glad that situation is behind me"), causation ("the President got the country through a tough economic time"), and countless other everyday processes of reasoning and language. 

So to recap, the findings of cognitive neuroscience are that:
  • Reasoning and language are structured by primary metaphors
  • Primary metaphors are physical connections in the brain
  • The formation of primary metaphors is entirely subconscious
  • Thus, the structure of reason is subconscious and inaccessible to our phenomenological experience — you cannot understand your own mind just by thinking about it!
These findings undermine a great deal of philosophical assumptions that have stubbornly persisted for centuries and are only now dying a slow death, being replaced by an empirically responsible philosophy of mind. Philosopher of antiquity, without the access to the empirical methodology we have today, could only attempt to understand their minds through self-reflection. But since that is impossible, those philosophies were doomed from the outset.

Next, we'll take a look at some of that philosophy of mind, particularly in regard to Aristotle's view of abstract thought, and show how computational neuroscience usurps it. 

14 January 2015

Your narrative has become tiresome

First, a million points to anyone who gets that reference without having to Google it. Anyway... I promise I'll be back on the topic of the mind soon, when I have more time to write. In the meantime, here's another quickie.

Part of the reason I wanted to do a series on the mind is because just as this blog originally started as a way for me to think through a variety of issues by writing them out, I've been doing lots of reading on cognition and it helps me to think it through by writing. I'm not necessarily interested in constructing some sort of logically deductive argument that will be promptly nitpicked by all manner of interlocutors; instead, I'm interested in exploring and articulating the evidence for an empirically-responsible philosophy of mind, and sharing my thoughts with others.

In the past, this blog has hosted many a debate. More often than not, they quickly become tiresome point-counterpoint exchanges, filled with lots of blockquote tags, that leave everyone slightly more entrenched in their original position than they were to begin with. This is actually an idiosyncrasy of human psychology — rebutting an argument point by point actually serves to reinforce an interlocutor's position, even if they're wrong. That's why all the anti-misinformation campaigns by vaccine advocates have backfired.

To that end, I'm coming to the conclusion that rather than the umpteenth post dissecting the Kalam Cosmological Argument or Aristotlean metaphysics, it's better to focus on building the case for an alternative point of view.

There's a deeper reason for this as well, which is that in most cases the reason it seems like everyone in debates is just talking past one another is because they are. They are not debating conclusions, or even premises; rather, the real point of contention is the very semantic structure of the premises themselves.

Take the Kalam, for example. It's notable that its most famous champion, William Lane Craig, has mentioned on many occasions that it cannot be true unless the A-Theory of time is true (if you don't know what the A-Theory of time is, don't sweat it). Well, according to the PhilPapers surveys, somewhere around 85% of academic philosophers think the A-Theory of time is wrong. Now, maybe that 85% are all wrong. But does Craig ever give any indication of just how controversial the assumptions underlying his premises really are? How can any debate be remotely productive when the premises of the arguments are predicated on such hidden assumptions?

This extends to a myriad of philosophical concepts. What conclusions your arguments entail depends greatly on your conceptualization of the terms. What is time? Existence? Being? Causation? Laws? Nature? Properties?

These aren't the kinds of things to gloss over lightly — they are absolutely central to any discussion. Debates frequently go nowhere precisely because the interlocutors are operating from completely different conceptual frameworks; it's also why, on all side of debates, you hear people incredulously declaring that their position is just so obviously true, and the other side so ridiculous, and of course the other side would realize that if they would just think. When you're operating from a conceptual framework which entails a particular conclusion, you will likely hastily assume that others are operating from the same framework when, in reality, they are probably operating from another conceptual framework entirely — one in which your conclusions are most certainly not entailed! The failure of the other side to "get it" isn't a problem of them not thinking through the issue, but thinking through a fundamentally different set of conceptual propositions.

So, maybe it's time to let these debates die a slow death and, instead, talk more about the assumptions in which our reasoning is rooted. Even if we disagree, we'll do a better job of understanding one another.

13 January 2015

What is Science?

A long time ago, Bud Uzoras of the excellent, now semi-retired blog Dead Logic invited me to do a post on science — specifically, my answer to the question "What is science?". Well, I got sidetracked, forgot about it several times, drafted several posts, forgot about them, and it just never materialized. But, the idea was good. And in my last post on the mind, I offered up a definition on what science is that I thought was concise and complete. So I'm going to take a break from my mind series and talk briefly about what, in my opinion science is.

I think science can be defined simply as follows: the search for stable truths.

In my experience, most define science as the study of the empirical, or of the "natural world", or of physical things. But all these definitions are wanting. What, exactly, is the natural world? Near-death studies attempt (and fail) to quantify the experience of disembodiment and demonstrate that the mind can exist without the body. If they could be successful with such experiments, wouldn't the fact of this disembodiment simply become part of our understanding of the mind — part of our science of the mind?

And what about, say, cognitive sciences? Are image schemas physical? What about semantics, or domain mappings? These are conceptually integral to the empirical science of cognition, but we can't point at a picture of the brain and say "there's an image schema". We can point to parts of the brain that correspond to image schemas and the like, but conceptual abstraction and metaphor are fundamentally integral to the practice of science.

I think it's much less ambiguous to define science as the search for stable truths. What is a stable truth? Simply a reliable, repeatable pattern. We observe the patterns through our sensory experience; then we create a theoretical model which attempts to map the patterns in such a way that we can accurately predict them.

Importantly, this definition does not operate on the assumption that the only truths are scientific ones. However, it does follow that unscientific truths are unreliable — they cannot be replicated, modeled, or predicted. It may be that an angel appeared to Joe in a dream and revealed to him some profound truth about the universe. But since this can in no way be independently verified, it is not a stable truth.

Stable truths are particularly powerful in that they can be demonstrated to others, and others can discover them independently. Scientific discoveries are often made independently, and once they are made the evidence supporting them can be shown to rational skeptics to demonstrate the reliability of the claims. It's telling that philosophical claims about the nature of reality are almost never discovered independently — did anyone else "discover" Aristotlean causality or Platonic realism who was not intimately knowledgeable of those philosophies? Is there any way to independently corroborate the claims and demonstrate that they are stable truths?

I'm fond of Sean Carroll's statement that if you want to know what reality is, you have to get out there and look at it. The process of human reason, as I'll be discussing in the next few posts in my series on the mind, is fundamentally metaphorical. Stable truths cannot be arrived at through reason alone. Science has been successful because it's given us a means by which to identify stable truths, and we've seemed to suffer no loss at all through our abandonment of things like 'metaphysical' causality and abstract realism. There will always be those who insist that science is a narrow domain that cannot reveal deep truths about reality. But if those deep truths are stable truths, then they necessarily fall under the purview of scientific inquiry. If there is some "other way of knowing" that can be shown to be reliable, no one has discovered it yet.

04 January 2015

Toward an Understanding of the Mind: Problems with Dualism

Dualism comes in a variety of forms. The most common two are Cartesian substance dualism, which says that the mind and body are distinct substances and can exist without one another; and property dualism, which says that the mind has distinct properties from the brain, but emerges from the brain. I mentioned Ed Feser in my last post, and he along with a few other theologians subscribe to what they call hylemorphic dualism, in which they claim that the mind and body are different forms of the same substance.

This can all be a little confusing. Cartesian dualism and hylemorphic dualism entail a supernatural view of the mind, while property dualists may or may not be materialists. For the purposes of this series, I'm not particularly concerned with the minutiae of the different schools of dualistic thought; rather, I'm focused on the overarching thesis that the mind is fundamentally non-physical. That is, the qualia of the mind — abstractions, semantics, and metaphor — all literally exist, but exist in some non-physical capacity. Dualists get in a pickle about how exactly those qualities exist; some say it's in a separate realm or plane of existence (Platonic realism), some that they stem from the mind of God, etc. And again, those discussions aren't really relevant here — I'm only concerned with the claim that those qualities do exist independently of the body.

Dualism, though, doesn't provide an easy solution to our understanding of the mind, and that's because it comes with a host of loaded assumptions and conceptual ambiguities. In the previous post, I argued that contrary to what some dualists claim, the dilemmas faced by monism do not in principle show it to be false. And by the same token, I think it's worthwhile to point out that the dilemmas faced by dualism also do not in principle show it to be false. What's needed in a sound understanding of the mind is a model, whether dualist or monist, that successfully accounts for qualia with a minimum of assumptions, and that will be coming in the next few posts.

But yes, a minimum of assumptions. Parsimony. Something I've never liked about dualist views of the mind is that they entail a number of assumptions that appear to raise more questions than they answer. Again, this does not in itself demonstrate dualism is false. But if we can model the mind without those loaded assumptions, we'll have shown dualism to be irrelevant. So what are these loaded assumptions?

Problem 1: What is a non-physical substance?

Dualist theories of mind center greatly on claims about the mind, the self, and qualia being some variety of non-physical substances. Descartes thought that the mind and the body were distinct 'substances'; some Scholastic theologians think the mind and body are different forms of the same 'substance', one being a physical form and the other being non-physical.

We have a coherent picture of what physical things are. They have mass or energy that can be measured; they interact according to repeatable, reliable patterns we describe as physical law; and they exist spatiotemporally — that is, at a given location in space and time.

But what, exactly, is a non-physical form or substance? It is not located anywhere, nor is it composed of anything, but it is neither nothing nor nowhere. It is not governed by any known physical laws, yet it causally interacts with the physical brain and, by extension, our bodies. If a form or substance is not physical, it has no dimensions, no weight, no mass, and no energy. So what, exactly, is it? How can something even be coherently called a "form" or "substance" if it lacks the properties we generally use to describe a forms and substances in the first place? And if something does not exist at any time or in any place, in what sense does it exist at all?

The problem for dualism isn't just that these concepts seem enshrouded in semantic mystery; it's that dualists have yet to even propose a means by which semantic clarity could be ascertained. Rather, dualism seems doomed to be trapped behind a veil of metaphor. How can we possibly have a clear understanding of the mind as a non-physical entity if we cannot even have a clear understanding of what a non-physical entity is in the first place?


Problem 2: How does the mind interact with the brain?

Descartes was aware of the interaction problem, but he never developed a strong solution. On dualism, the mind causally interacts with the brain in some fashion. The type and degree of interaction varies depending on the school of dualistic thought, but the bigger hurdle is the mechanism of interaction. I'm quite fond of this quote from physicist Lisa Randall in her book Knocking on Heaven's Door, which I've referenced often and once again find relevant:
Even if science doesn’t necessarily tell us why things happen, we do know how things move and interact. If God has no physical influence, things won’t move. Even our thoughts, which ultimately rely on electrical signals moving in our brains, won’t be affected. 
If such external influences are intrinsic to religion, then logic and scientific thought dictate that there must be a mechanism by which this influence is transmitted. A religious or spiritual belief that involves an invisible undetectable force that nonetheless influences human actions and behavior or that of the world itself produces a situation in which a believer has no choice but to have faith and abandon logic— or simply not care.
Randall is talking about a slightly tangential issue, but the dilemma is the same for dualism. We have a clear, mechanistic picture of how the world works, and that includes the physical brain. We know that damaging specific regions of the brain can produce profound changes to one's qualitative experience. In the book Descartes' Error, neurologist Antonio Damasio discusses research in which damage to the areas of the brain responsible for emotion produce an inability to use reason, showing that our capacity to reason is deeply intertwined with our ability to think emotionally.

In a materialist paradigm of the mind, there are no non-physical elements interacting with the physical. The mind is, as Steve Novella frequently puts it, "what the brain does"; therefore, as we'd expect under such a paradigm, our capacity to think is directly affected by causal interactions in the physical brain. But on a dualist view, this is merely a lucky correlation, obscuring the real interaction between the physical and non-physical. When the brain is damaged, it's simply preventing the mind from being properly realized.

If that is true, though, there must be some mechanism of interaction between the non-physical mind and the physical brain. If the mind cannot causally affect the neurons in the brain, we will not have the capacity to think. If such an interaction exists — and it must, for dualism to be true — why can it not be modeled empirically?

Consider for a moment that in its simplest conceptualization, science is the search for stable truths. I believe science's empirical bend is incidental, not fundamental, because science simply searches for repeatable, reliable patterns in the world. It just so happens that "supernatural" or "non-physical" substances and mechanisms have not lent themselves to those types of patterns. But if dualism is true, then we ought to be able to find reliable, repeatable patterns substantiating the hypothetical interaction between the mind and brain. Even if the mind itself eludes quantitative description, dualism requires that the mind has a functional relationship with the body that we ought to be able to model empirically.

The only alternative for the dualist is to try and have it both ways: to claim that the non-physical mind causally interacts with the brain, yet produces no reliable, repeatable effect in the brain. Holding such a position requires the dualist to abandon logic and embrace magical thinking.


Toward a physical model of the mind

We've seen the dilemmas that monism faces, and we've seen that dualism raises more questions than it answers and may suffer from some intractable problems. So we have to find a new model of the mind: one that fully and coherently accounts for the existence of qualia like semantics, metaphor, and abstraction, yet does not posit any magical substances or interactions between physical and non-physical realms. Is it possible? I think it is, and it's the science of embodied cognition — a burgeoning field in modern neurocognition. A scientific understanding of the mind will necessarily overturn some longstanding assumptions about reason, logic, semantics, language, and metaphor, and those assumptions are what I'll be discussing in the next post.


Next: Old Assumptions Die Hard
Part 1: The Mind-Body Problem
Introduction: Toward an Understanding of the Mind

Toward an Understanding of the Mind: The Mind-Body Problem

I'm thinking about a cat. I can 'see' the cat in my mind's eye, and 'hear' its meows. I can think of a series of events, like me petting the cat and/or launching it from a potato gun into a warehouse full of pillows while it wears a little helmet with flames painted on the side. You can, of course, visualize all this as well.

But what's really going on here? We aren't visualizing a literal cat — that is, there isn't a physical cat lodged in our brains. The cat is some kind of mental representation of something that exists 'out there'. It doesn't seem to make any sense to say it's physical. So, it's an abstraction. But what is that? Semantics, metaphor, abstraction — what exactly are these things? They can't be physical — you can't open up a human brain and find "semantics". But if they're non-physical, what does that mean?

Renee Descartes attempted to capture the mystery of the mind in the Sixth Meditation:
[T]here is a great difference between the mind and the body, inasmuch as the body is by its very nature always divisible, while the mind is utterly indivisible. For when I consider the mind, or myself in so far as I am merely a thinking thing, I am unable to distinguish any parts within myself; I understand myself to be something quite single and complete….By contrast, there is no corporeal or extended thing that I can think of which in my thought I cannot easily divide into parts; and this very fact makes me understand that it is divisible. This one argument would be enough to show me that the mind is completely different from the body…. (AT VII 86-87: CSM II 59).
Descartes is arguing here that the mind cannot be divided into parts, like a body can. You can't split the self in half, and have two selves (or can you?) the way you can split a body in two. Clearly, Descartes reasons, the mind cannot be a physical thing like the body.

Another way to think about this is the distinction between the quantitative and the qualitative. The phenomenological experience of consciousness is fundamentally qualitative — color, texture, taste, sound, emotion; while the external physical world is fundamentally quantitative — measured in mathematical descriptions of shape, size, weight, physical law, etc. This would appear to have two profound implications: one, that the body (and with it, the physical brain) cannot be the same kind of thing as the mind; and two, that qualitative descriptions of the world — including the entire enterprise of science — are fundamentally limited by their inability to account for qualia.

So when I'm thinking about the cat, I'm not thinking about a cat that is measurable. The cat in my mind has no definitive shape, size, weight, or anatomical structure. It is composed of nothing and, like the self, is indivisible. Indeed, this cat completely eludes any kind of quantitative analysis at all — it is an abstraction. And yet while I of course know that the cat isn't literally in my mind, the qualitative experience is nonetheless fully real to me. My subjective experience of self, of semantic meaning, of abstract thought — all of these things are as much a part of my veridical experience as anything I can touch, taste, see, hear, or smell.

Catholic theologian Ed Feser summarizes the dilemma well:
Thoughts and the like possess inherent meaning or intentionality; brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, and the like, are utterly devoid of any inherent meaning or intentionality; so thoughts and the like cannot possibly be identified with brain processes.
I'll spend a good deal of time later in this series arguing that this position is wholly undermined and indeed demonstrably false given the findings of the modern theory of embodied cognition. But the problem facing a scientific, empirical understanding of the mind should be clear: science purportedly measures only the physical and quantitative; but the mind is defined by qualia like metaphor, abstraction, and semantic meaning. As we can see from the forcefulness of Feser's statement, dualists generally take dilemmas like these to be in principle insurmountable by monist theories of mind, and in order to show why such a view is misguided it'll be necessary to re-examine what things like metaphor, semantics, and abstraction really are in the first place. But dualist theories of mind raise a litany of problems on their own, and recognizing their deficiencies will ultimately help us see the strength of what dualists claim is impossible: a scientific understanding of the mind.

Next: Problems with Dualsim
Previous: Introduction

02 January 2015

Toward an Understanding of the Mind: Introduction

I've been fascinated by the mind for as long as I can remember. I minored in psychology in college, and I remember being especially fascinated with cognitive psychology. My psych courses had a habit of disabusing me of many of my long-held beliefs. In one of my first psychology courses, a section on the psychology of possession disabused me of the notion that my 'spiritual' experiences as a young Christian were unique; in fact they were common to people all over the world, from a litany of major, minor, and tribal religions. In part of my cognitive psych course, I was disabused of the romanticized view of dreams, which are little more than random firings of long-term memory, unencumbered by an influx of conscious sensory data. My fascination with the mind has continued over the years — I've read quite a few books on cognition and memory, I follow neurologist Steve Novella at his excellent blog, and I always enjoy the occasional issue of Scientific American Mind

This blog has generally centered on theological and philosophical issues, and in my time here and in various other blogs' Disqus threads I've crossed paths with lots of people who don't seem so much fascinated with the mind as they seem dedicated to rationalizing a certain set of theological propositions. The existence of a soul is a vital part of most religions and certainly a major backbone of Christianity. If you think about it, one of religion's greatest objectives is to do away with death entirely; there is no real 'death', only the end of our physical existence. After this life, our minds continue to live on in some ineffable way, possibly for all eternity. 

The need to preserve this believe is, in my estimation, the sole motivation behind dualist views of the mind: that human cognition is ultimately the result of two interacting substances: the physical brain, which processes sensory data; and the non-physical mind, which governs our process of reasoning. The extent and type of interaction varies among the various types of dualism, but the overarching theme is the same. 

This is in contrast with scientific theories of the mind, which are overwhelmingly monist — that is, there is only one 'substance' at work — physical matter. The use of the word 'substance' in this context has a vaguely Aristotlean-Thomistic ring to it that I think may obscure the fact that monist theories are really just operating on parsimony — they are not postulating any non-empirical components to the mind. As with dualism, there are many varieties of monist theories of mind. The area that has fascinated me the most, and what has been gaining steam in the field of cognitive science, is the theory of embodied cognition. This is the view not just that we need a body to reason — even dualists agree with that, since we take in sensory data through the body; rather, it's the rather radical-sounding idea that the very structure of our reason stems from the details of our embodiment, and that our very process of reasoning is inherently metaphorical. 

I'll talk much more about embodied cognition later, but I'm going to start this series by detailing some of the problems that both monist and dualist theories of mind face. My bias isn't exactly hidden here, and I think it'd be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Nonetheless, I hope to represent the general difficulties with both theories as fairly as I can. A monist view of the mind isn't some easy-fix solution to the mind-body problem; in many respects, a dualist view can seem (at least at first) to offer a more sensible solution to the problem. I'll give a primer on representational and computational theories of mind and how they differ from embodied cognition, and ultimately I'll argue that the theory of embodied cognition can resolve the mind-body problem and, in the process, undermine some longstanding philosophical and scientific assumptions.

In the meantime, if this is a topic that interests you, I encourage you to click the embedded links and peruse the various articles to get an overview of the topics I'll be discussing. 


Next: The Mind-Body Problem

(An index of the series will be updated with each new post).

31 December 2014

Martin Luther was a dick

Martin Luther was, to put it gently, an assbutt. He hated women:
  • "The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes."
  • "No gown worse becomes a woman than the desire to be wise." 
  • "Men have broad and large chests, and small narrow hips, and more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow breasts, and broad hips, to the end they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children." 
And he hated Jews:
  • "But what will happen even if we do burn down the Jews' synagogues andforbid them publicly to praise God, to pray, to teach, to utter God's name? They will still keep doing it in secret. If we know that they are doing this in secret, it is the same as if they were doing it publicly. For our knowledge of their secret doings and our toleration of them implies that they are not secret after all, and thus our conscience is encumbered withit before God. So let us beware. In my opinion the problem must be resolved thus: If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews' blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country. Let them think of their fatherland; then they need no longer wail and lie before God against us that we are holding them captive, nor need we then any longer complain that they are burdening us with their blasphemy and their usury. This is the most natural and the best course of action, which will safe guard the interest of both parties."
  • "[If] I had power over them, I would assemble their scholars and their leaders and order them, on pain of losing their tongues down to the root, to convince us Christians within eight days of the truth of theirassertions and to prove this blasphemous lie against us, to the effect that we worship more than the one true God. If they succeeded, we would all on the self-same day become Jews and be circumcised. If they failed, they should stand ready to receive the punishment they deserve for such shameful, malicious, pernicious, and venomous lies."
There are many more quotes like this (feel free to source them yourself), and what gets me is that he's absolutely revered as both a theological visionary and a wise man of God. It's likely that most Christians, assuming they even know who he was, have no idea what a vile human being he really was.

Now, the fact that he was vile, of course, does not in itself mean his theology was wrong. But could you imagine, today, someone appealing to the theology of the Klu Klux Klan with some accommodationist excuse like, "Well, we disagree with their views on race, but they have some great ideas about salvation and God"?

In other words: if Martin Luther were alive today, would he still be viewed as a theological visionary, or just a raving lunatic? And why are modern Christians so keen to overlook his inhumanity? Is it in part because it's harder to blame Hitler's actions on 'atheism' when you realize he got lots of his Jew-hating ideas from one of the most revered Christians who ever lived, even praising Luther in Mein Kampf?

There's really no point to this post, just a stream of consciousness... take it for what you will.