Monday, June 10, 2013

You Are Not Your Brain

"The body is necessary for the action of the intellect, not as its origin of action, but on the part of the object; for the phantasm is to the intellect what color is to the sight. Neither does such a dependence on the body prove the intellect to be non-subsistent; otherwise it would follow that an animal is non-subsistent, since it requires external objects of the senses in order to perform its act of perception."
(Thomas Aquinas, Summa 1:75:2, Reply 3)

[The soul is not a substance unrelated to the body, but rather is the form of the body, able to exist on its own, though imperfectly so. That the soul is distinct from the body, however, can be shown by several arguments: Reason, Reference, Qualia, & Free Will.]

So far we've come to know some more about the soul and how we relate to the world. But what are we? We're human, we're alive. We run, play, sleep, write poetry, fall in love, kick soccer balls, make movies, watch movies, eat, etc. We're active! (Sometimes, at least.)

But some of those activities are different than others. When a person kicks a ball, there's a visible motion. When a person thinks about soccer statistics, however, we don't see any accompanying motion, unless they are also mouthing it or typing or some other thing beyond simply thinking. And this idea, that some things are physical and some are not, is the idea behind the soul.

There's an important distinction to make before I go any further. While the mind involves all the parts laid out in the post about the mind, the soul includes more than that. The soul is the principle/structure/explanation behind all human activity, from eating to walking to composing metaphysical treatises in Latin. The soul is the organizational structure of material parts by which an animal (living material thing) executes its activities. In that sense, plants and animals also have a kind of soul, as they are similar to humans in a unique way by also being living things. This is why living things are called "animate" (the Latin word for "soul" is "anima"), and non-living things are called inanimate.

Notice right away that that kind of definition cuts the notion of Cartesian Dualism off right away, since the soul is necessarily related to the body in an essential way--the soul is just the structure the body has that makes it able to and actually be alive. When an animal dies, the soul is gone, by definition, since there is no longer any possible activity of the animal being performed.

But then we get into a tricky matter, because that last sentence is actually not without contention. Some people do say that at least the human soul survives bodily death. The fact that the body can lie before us and not be alive itself shows that the soul is something more than the body--though not necessarily able to exist on its own. Those who believe it is such a thing as can exist on its own do so mainly because of variations of a few basic arguments. These arguments themselves are not about the immortality of the soul--that'll be another post--but rather show that the soul, because it contains the mind, which itself contains the intellect, is a self-existent, immaterial thing.

1. Rational Thought

This was Aristotle's main issue with the idea of the soul being entirely the result of physical causes. If our brains are the sole cause of our thoughts, then our thoughts would be limited because there are physical limitations on the brain. If our thoughts are patterns/structures of something (neural networks might be the best description) based on patterns/structures exhibited by the things in the world, then because our brains can only have a finite number of finite patterns/structures they can contain or become, our thoughts would be limited in that way. The argument is that we do not in fact find such a limitation, but rather seem to be able to think about anything that is logically possible and finite--restrictions which would still apply even if there is an immaterial soul. Since we can do that, we must not be limited by the limitations of the brain or any other physically limited thing. And that would mean that we have an immaterial component in thought. Not that all soul-activity is inexplicable without recourse to immateriality, but that some part is, and therefore the whole must be, since it is one united thing. Think of it not like a mouth chewing, even though the whole body can't chew, but instead like the house in "Up" tied to balloons--if one part is floating, the whole thing is, because it is all unified in a relevant way. Aquinas explains this in depth in his Summas, but I neither have the space to give the explanation in detailed terms, nor the skill to do a better job than he has already.

2. Reason & Reference

This is a related argument, but one also more widely-used in contemporary philosophy. There are two aspects, but ultimately it is one and the same thing. When we think about things, we think about things. Think about that. Rocks are not "about" anything. Animals do not do anything "about" except walk "about something"--but that's really just another way of saying "around". But humans think "about" things--we refer to them, we mean them, we intend to say one thing, even if we accidentally say another. There is some kind of holding in one's mind of the thing being though that is not just a reaction, but a sort of turning towards it. That ability is the basis of this argument.

Hilary Putnam, in a famous article "Brains in a Vat" gives an example for what we mean by this "aboutness". He says that if an ant makes tracks in a sand dune such that they look like Winston Churchill, it is not actually a representation or depiction of him. The lines are not "about" him; they are accidentally arranged. But if a person sees Churchill, or photographs of him, and draws a picture of him, then it is indeed a representation or depiction--it refers to Churchill; the artist intends to convey him; it is "about" him. So how can our minds have this "aboutness" to them, when all of the components of the brain would be like the ants in the sand; themselves not rational? The argument would be that our minds must not be entirely dependent on the mind.

Similarly, C.S. Lewis gives an argument from two meanings of the word "because". When we think about things, we refer to them. It isn't just that thoughts come into our mind due to chemical, deterministic processes, but rather through rational thought, just as depictions of Churchill don't come from ants and sand, but intentional thought. If we say to a person something like, "Well you only think that because you are a Republican," or, "You say that because you're already a Christian anyways," we mean to invalidate the claim, as it is being produced not due to the rational content of the claim itself, but due to some other factor. That strongly implies that non-rational causes for rational claims render them invalid. But if we say, "If A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C because they are both equal to B," we mean something different--that there is a rational cause for the claim. "Socrates must be mortal because he is a man and all men are mortal," works logically, and is another example of this second type. But if we put this together, it means that if our thoughts are caused by non-rational things (the neurons firing in your brain), then the thoughts are not rationally valid. But the whole idea of this argument, of neuroscience, of philosophy, and of daily communication is that our thoughts are rationally valid, at least some of the time.

3. Subjective Experience

This argument is pretty simple. We not only know about color, but actually perceive it. Crazy stuff, right? To add a little more, the notion is that our experience of color or taste or anything like that goes beyond what the brain alone can do. Here's a commonly used illustration: Imagine Mary, a girl born and raised (somehow) in a room or house without anything of color in it; only black and white. Or perhaps she has glasses on all the time that remove color from the light. Or maybe it's only that there's nothing blue or purple. However it is set, she lacks at least some color experience. Now imagine she lives in an era where science has been perfected to the degree that all possible relevant information about sensation and perception of color is available, and she reads or is taught all of it. Now suppose we took off the glasses/let her out into the world, and she actually sees the colors for the first time in her life. Will she know something she didn't before? That is, is there something in the experience of color beyond the information aspect? It seems that there is some aspect that is the experience itself, different from the information about wavelengths, rods & cones, or neuroscience. That experiential component is known as "qualia", and this, too, is taken to show that not all aspects of the mind can be attributed to the brain. If we can know, in theory, everything about a brain, and all thoughts are are brain states, then we should be able to know everything about thoughts--but this seems to show that such is not actually the case.

4. Free Will

Finally, and perhaps more fundamentally contentious, is the argument from free will. If we have it, either we have it from the brain somehow, or from a soul somehow. If it's from the brain, either it is from deterministic physics, or indeterminate physics. But determinate causes don't make free choices, but determined effects. And the kind of indeterminate causes proposed in some quantum theories amount to utter randomness, which is also not free will, but insanity. So it seems like we have to go with it coming from the soul, and that's how it can be something determined, and not random, but determined by the nature of the agent, rather than some external forces, which would make it not free. So we can give up free will, sure, but then everything becomes unintelligible, since you can't choose what to believe or do or think or love or anything at all--and that's not life, that's like a kind of death! Life would be the biggest illusion of all if we are not free.


Based on those arguments, or rather, better formulations of them, people have long concluded that humans must have some aspect that is immaterial. This has serious implications, as far as where that aspect comes from, what other things like it might exist, how we learn and know things, what happens to it when the body dies, and how the distinction affects our morals--but I'll leave those to be thought upon by the reader, and dive in further in coming posts. For now, here's an article about how the complete splitting of body and soul can affect our morals, specifically in the area of sexual ethics. It's good to be a composite of body and soul!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Five Senses

“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.” (Oscar Wilde)

[From a short analysis of the ways in which our bodies can be related to a thing, the reason we have five, and not four or six, senses becomes apparent. Put another way, this is a terrible summation of Aristotle's discussion of the senses in his "On the Soul".]

Given that a person is a mind and body united as a composite whole, based on the previous post, we would need to bring in something to think about, if all the mind is is "empty equipment". I don't think we entirely lack innate ideas, but I also think we only get our ideas by means of sense experience--how the two can be held true at the same time without contradiction is something I will get into in another post, maybe even the next one!

So if we are embodied minds or ensouled bodies, then we would have to have some kind of mechanism for getting the world around us into us. Or rather, instead of saying, "would have to," it's simply a matter of, "it seems manifestly that we do". These mechanisms we call the senses. (We are focusing entirely on the senses which are *external* to the body for now.)

Since we are bodies, we could relate to the other bodies/things in a few important ways. The most important way we could relate to an object is spatially, as material objects are defined by their being spatial. Descartes seems to be right here, that mind is thinking-stuff and matter is spatial-stuff, even if his understanding was skewed by his method.

Spatially, the most immediate relation is, given that no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time and be distinct objects, adjacency. Either we are right next to the thing, or we are not.

Further, if something is going to come into us somehow, it has to affect us in some way. It can either do it directly itself, or it can affect something else, which is the actual thing we perceive, but based on which we know the object producing the effect exists. This doesn't count the body, since it's a part of us, even though it is affected, and then it comes into the mind where we fully perceive the sensation.

So a thing that's adjacent to us and affects us directly by its space is sensed through touch. Since the object is touching us itself, we can also discern some other qualities about it based on the way that moving whatever is touching the object over that object is resisted or easy (whether it's rough or smooth), and things like that.

Something adjacent to us, but acting indirectly, that is, through a medium, is sensed by taste. Taste is like touch, and is one of the most basic senses. That might have something to do with why babies constantly put things in their mouths! Taste is specific, though, because while touch tells us that there is an object, and few other things, without which we would easily die, and moving around would be seemingly impossible, taste has to do with eating. Once we find something, via touch, we have to tell if it is sustenance or not. Since we are made of chemicals in a precise balance, as far as the body goes, taste relates chemical information to us.

If a thing is not adjacent to us, but is acting on us itself, we experience that as smell. As unappealing as it is, nasty smells are little pieces of the thing coming to us. Thankfully, a good whiff of muffins or bacon also contains little muffin or bacon bits, too! This is a lot like taste, in that it gives us chemical information, since it, too, has to take in bits of the thing. This is also why smell and taste are in specific organs, rather than all over like touch--because the senses have to take some little piece in of what is being sensed directly, even though as a whole it serves as a less-than-totally-direct sensation, and because some things are harmful to take in. The immediacy of smell and taste make them similar in manifestation, and they are also similar to touch because they sense something as a piece itself, though they sense the whole indirectly.

Something not adjacent to us, and acting on us through a medium can do so in two ways. Since touch and taste involve sensing the object adjacently, the object itself must be doing the acting. And since both touch and smell are sensation of the object itself, similarly the object must be the active thing. But now that we're looking at things that aren't touching us and are not directly affecting us, it could be that the thing is the actor, or that it is not the cause of the action that we sense. Our senses have to have an actor causing them, since the whole idea of a sense is something coming into us. Maybe we could shoot beams of light from our foreheads to see with, but sight would not be in the light-shooting, but in taking in the light shot out bouncing to our eyes. Sensation is one-way, even if perception may not be.

So something not adjacent, acting through a medium, and active itself will produce an effect on the medium that comes to us, and this is what we call sound. All senses sense change. We don't really think about what our fingers feel like unless something changes--like slamming them in a door. We don't really think about what our mouth tastes like unless some flavor changes it. So if the effect on the medium changes, it will involve the passage of time. Time doesn't really get associated so much with taste or touch or smell, but with hearing the pairing is obvious--music is entirely based on this connection. The most abundant medium is air, so unless underwater, this is what fills our ears. And since the air surrounds us, and usually the object in all directions, in order to sense a particular object more specifically, we have directional senses like our ears, which focus the sensation.

Finally, something not adjacent, acting in a medium, and being acted on itself by something else is sensed as sight. Since the thing is being acted on, and the most abundant actor in nature is light, we sense the light acting on the object. What is the medium? Well, one could either say the water of the eye before it reaches the sensor itself, perhaps used to further the contrast with the air in hearing (and there are things like insects and simple-eyed creatures that don't have this feature), or something like the aether which was held to exist until the Michelson-Morley experiment of the early 1900s, and which I think could be the pilot-wave in Bohmian quantum theory.

Honestly I am going to stop there with regard to the senses. Looking over Aristotle's work again, and the Scholastic expositions of it have really left me feeling humbled by the completeness of their approach, at least vastly with respect to this little article.

The main idea was to establish that a thing can either be adjacent or not, in a medium or not, and either active or being acted upon, and the sum of the real possibilities of those three divisions results in five sensory faculties, matching our lived experience, provided someone is not blind or deaf or things like that.

Why red looks as it does, or why saltiness tastes like it does is far beyond me, and I know of few people who have stepped into waters that deep. Maybe someday I'll be able to grasp such a thing, but for now, it is out of my reach.

That's alright, though; the wonder drives philosophy and inquiry on.