Thursday, June 17, 2010

Philosophy 101

Friday marks the end of the first six-week summer session. That means that, aside from some final grading, I’ll be done with my summer TA work in just over 24 hours. Exciting. And, get this, I’ve managed to attend all 27 class meetings thus far without wearing the same shirt twice. I’ll also be able to make it these final two days without repeating a shirt. Isn’t that nifty? And yes, I kept track of that. I figured if I didn’t, I’d be liable to wear one or two shirts over and over and over and over again, without even realizing it. So kudos to me.

In more important news (if we should call it that), I’ve enjoyed being a part of this summer class. Quite surprisingly enjoyed it, actually. It’s a basic introduction to philosophy course, and it’s being taught by another grad student, but I’ve benefitted from it. Not in terms of learning the basic concepts and positions that are held in a variety of philosophical areas, but in solidifying some of my own beliefs. Sometimes it seems like the more I’ve studied something, the less certain I’ve become about what I think about it. Somehow, though, just by reflecting on the things being discussed in this introductory class, I’ve come to see some views as more obviously correct—or, obviously more correct—than I ever have before. I know few of you give a crap, but here are some of those things:

I think the ethical notions of good and bad, right and wrong, and the like, are more intimately connected with aesthetics (beauty) than we typically suppose. This wasn’t a view discussed in the introductory course, but our class discussions got me thinking about things in a way that led me to reconsider this view. Think about it. When someone does something bad, even of seemingly little consequence or something that no one else knows about, why is it bad? Any appeal to tradition or authority (e.g. God) won’t help, because that’s just explaining why you’re convinced that the action in question is bad, not why it actually is bad. The consequences of that action? Maybe. But only if you think the action has negative consequences, and then we have to ask why those consequences are themselves bad. Another possible answer: “I don’t know why it’s bad, but I can just tell that it is bad!” That may very well be a sincere response, but I’m guessing that anyone who goes this route would, upon reflection, accept my proposal, which is this: because that action makes things—life, reality, the person himself, or whatever—less beautiful. (I use the term “beautiful” broadly, not just to refer to physical beauty.) That is, an action is bad because it diminishes or hinders beauty. Conversely, an action is good because it preserves or promotes beauty. Is it so crazy to link goodness and beauty? Why is love good? Because it’s wonderful! That is, because it’s beautiful! That is why it’s good! Isn’t that obvious enough? And why is torturing an animal for no reason whatsoever a bad thing? Because it’s ugly. It just is. And anyone who doesn’t see it as ugly is impaired, not just of a different opinion than us. Such a person doesn’t understand something about the matter, something true. That’s what I think. And so far as I can tell, the only reason to say that anything is good or right is because it adds to or preserves beauty, at least in the long run. In fact, the more I think about it, the less I can understand the notion of goodness without it being an aesthetic matter.

Philosophy of Mind
The key question in this field is: what is the relationship between the brain and the mind? Are they distinct? Are they one and the same? If they are distinct, how do they interact with each other? If they are one and the same, how do we explain the apparent difference between the physical nature of the brain and what seem to be immaterial mental items, like the first-person experience of seeing red (and not just what causes that experience), of tasting maple syrup (and not just what causes that experience), or even of imagination? Because there are mental items that are not evidently physical in nature—the Dalmatian I am imagining doesn’t occupy space-time, does it?—these mental items have traditionally been regarded as immaterial. Religious folk also tend to believe in and ultimately identify with an immaterial soul or spirit, and so we end up with people who believe that minds and souls are the same thing. In our modern era, we know the brain is vitally important to our thinking, but many people still cling to the idea that in some important sense, our minds are really our souls, and even though the brain is somehow involved, the real thinking—the first-person experience of thinking—is taking place in the immaterial mind, the soul. As such, these people may scoff at the idea that scientists could one day perform a brain scan, look at the data, and know pretty much exactly what we’re thinking. I used to think that way … but not anymore.

Here’s why. Suppose we do have souls, and suppose that our souls are our minds. Even so, where do we get our input from the world? Through the brain, quite obviously. Presumably, then, our brains are responding to the external world and our minds are then making sense of it all. And even when we think about things that aren’t actually in the external world—an imaginary Dalmatian, for example—we are certainly using our brains, what they’ve already learned and experienced, in order to represent the image of a Dalmatian to ourselves. This is not debatable. We know that when we imagine things, our brain is doing something related to that imagination process. But if our thought is necessarily linked to our physical brains, even if we grant that some important aspect of thought is delineated to a soul, then why couldn’t a scientist (in principle) decipher what my brain is doing? Put another way, if my soul depends on my brain for the content of its thoughts, and if my soul’s thoughts are therefore an apprehension of my brain states, then why couldn’t a scientist with sufficient knowledge and sophisticated enough instrumentation also deduce the content of my thoughts just by looking at my brain? The point is, the scientist would be doing exactly what I’m doing, though less directly. I don’t have to deduce what I’m thinking because it is readily apparent. The scientist would have to figure it out, but he wouldn’t be doing anything beyond what I’m doing in a more immediate way. I personally doubt that science will ever advance this far, but it only makes sense that this is theoretically possible.

Of course, I don’t readily accept the notion of immaterial souls. I believe I have a soul (or spirit, or whatever), and I believe it will survive my physical death, but I’m not comfortable saying that my soul is immaterial. At the very least, I think it is material-ish. I suspect that if we knew more about our souls, we would grant that they fall within the realm of physical existence, though perhaps it is at a level that we are far from discovering or appreciating at this point. This sets me apart from most people who subscribe to some sort of Judeo-Christian belief. I agree with those scientists and philosophers (the majority of them nowadays, I think) who find the notion of an immaterial soul preposterous. I can’t make sense of it, either. It seems to me there has to be something to our souls, if they exist, and it can’t just be thought. If it were just thought, then in what sense would I have the same soul now that I had as a baby? There’s nothing in common between my thoughts now and my thoughts then. You could argue that it’s the same soul because the thinking of my infancy and my thinking now are tied to the same physical body, albeit a physical body that has undergone massive changes over the years. But this answer isn’t satisfactory, unless you also make my physical body a part of my identity. If that’s so, then I can’t survive death, because I’ll lose my physical body then. (At least temporarily.) And what if I go into a coma and wake up with amnesia? (People do that, you know!) If my soul is immaterial thought, then it seems to me my whole soul would disappear in the wake of such a tragic accident. My immaterial thought would cease while I’m in a coma, and when I wake up, there is nothing about my amnesiac thought processes that resembles or remembers my pre-accident thought processes. So how on earth would that constitute the same soul, assuming my soul just is immaterial thought? How could we possibly make sense of the claim that it is the same immaterial thinking both before and after the accident? It doesn’t make sense! And even if we assume God will one day restore my memory in full, perhaps after my physical body dies, how would that make a difference? God’s restored version of me would just be a new soul, wouldn’t it? It would be a new thought process that was capable of simulating thought processes once had by “me” during my mortal existence. But unless that new thought process is contained in something—something physicalish—I don’t see how we can make sense of claiming it’s been the same person (“me”) the whole time—before the accident, after the accident when I have amnesia, and after I die and God restores all of my memories. Just think about it: what does God restore those memories to? No answer. He would simply be creating thoughts—creating a soul, on this misguided view. I can’t buy it. I think I’m as good as a physicalist (that is, one who denies that anything exists that is not importantly physical in nature), though there are mysteries aplenty no matter which way you go.

Holy crap if you’re still reading this. Or, rather, if you actually read everything up to this point. As much as I wish people would read and think about these things and give them some genuine consideration, I don’t expect most people to. I also realize that my views could easily be attacked as I’ve presented them here. This wasn’t mean to be a philosophical defense of my views, just a philosophical rant. These things have been on my mind, and these aren’t things I’ve always thought, so I find them interesting. I’ll stop now.


  1. Dear Wonderful Ben,
    Reading this post, all of it, was such a needed reprieve for my day. Khrys and I will be on our way to care for barfing children at Heather's house in a few minutes, so I enjoyed having something else to ponder.
    You bring up a few questions in my material mind/or non, whichever; mostly, is your description of a non material mind and memory and is this not basically the concept many people have of their God?
    Also there is a favorite book I've read by Deepak Chopra that goes to scientific lengths to explain cell intelligence and memory that relates well to these ideas. I really miss you and your discussions. But right now, I'd better be off to barf duty... : ). I'll come back to read this again later. Totally enjoyed every bit of it.

  2. WOW! I too think you are awesome and agree with mother. I'm not a philosopher so I don't have any good arguments against what you've said, but feel convinced and thoughtful about what you did say.

    I LOVE the discussion on ethics. It makes so much sense. Perhaps this is why our pursuit of beauty sometimes gets so sidetracked... what we start to call beauty, isn't and is therefore wrong or bad and we just get down the wrong road.
    I don't know if I could yet win any of the arguments in my head about why some things are wrong. It clears it up for me, but some might just argue that something isn't ugly "to them." At least I can know that "anyone who doesn’t see it as ugly is impaired, not just of a different opinion than us." (I'm thinking of pornography as my example).

    I also really liked the discussion of the physicality of the soul. There is a scripture that says all spirit is matter, it just can only be discerned by more refined (?) eyes. I always loved that thought for some reason. There is something that is me that continues through it all. And it's something real and tangible and lasting. I also find it awesome to think about that when looking at my baby...
    I'm babbling. But you got me thinking! Thanks.

  3. I love this! I really agree with everything you're saying. I especially liked the part on ethics because it states concretely something I think I've always intuitively known. So thank you!

    "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."