Other Interests

David Blair: Other Interests

 

 Contents

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Other science and philosophy

Philosophy  (by far the longest section on this page)

Physics

Psychology of Happiness and Suffering

Other

Leisure

Other science and philosophy

Here a number of topics attract my interest. They are pursued (when time permits) through reading and listening … however, when possible, I strive to produce my own answers.

Philosophy

Principal interests are: Consciousness and the mind-body relationship; ethics; and the philosophy of science.

Of the various kinds of philosophising that grew up in the twentieth century, there are some on which I am not at all keen, such as ordinary-language philosophy and, above all, postmodernism.  I found the version of phenomenology put forward by Merleau-Ponty to be impressive, although I cannot go all the way with it.  Analytical philosophy (dating from around 1900) has produced many advances, but often gets bogged down.

In my view, philosophy would benefit if its “centre of gravity” moved somewhat towards the methods of (theoretical) science.   Thus more of philosophy would be speculative—rather like “speculative science.”  Bold hypotheses would be proposed, often supported at first only by plausibility arguments; there would be less emphasis on strict deductive arguments.  Similarly models (as in science) would be proposed, usually not as being an exact representation of reality but as a step forward in our knowledge and understanding.  And a philosopher would not have to put on a public face that is one hundred per cent committed to what he/she proposes.  (No doubt, in this paragraph I have overstated my case, but I believe there’s a modicum of truth in it!)

Consciousness and the mind-body problem

In the remainder of this section (“Philosophy”), I shall discuss that most puzzling of all aspects of our universe, consciousness—in particular, how are the “phenomena” (of which we seem to be directly aware) related to the physical (or material) world, that is, related to the brain or the body?  This is referred to as the mind-body problem.

Many modern philosophers describe themselves as “materialists.”  Materialism holds that there is only matter; that the things that exist are all material (or all “physical,” to allow for items such as electric fields).  Usually a materialist holds that, yes, there are conscious experiences, but those experiences are not what they appear to be: rather, they are physical events.

Everyone agrees that we have an awfully long way to go to give a reasonably comprehensive account (rather than a somewhat speculative outline) of the relationship between the mind (consciousness) and the brain.  And the same holds in regard to giving such an account of just the brain, as a physical object capable of remarkable actions.

Among the materialists, there are some who claim to have explained consciousness—in outline, that is.  But to many of us, what they have done is, at best, to have explained something else—some physical feature of the brain.  Typically, such a piece of work throws some light on how the organisation of the brain can lead to intelligent behaviour.

Relevant knowledge continues to be gained, however, at least in understanding the brain (physical), including its “software” (the functioning of the brain/mind described in the abstract terms of computer science, one day perhaps to be replaced by terms referring to physical parts of the brain).  This continual advance tends to give materialists increasing confidence.  I, however, still hold to the view—scoffed at by some—that conscious activity is an “extra”—that it has an extra metaphysical quality—that cannot possibly be explained by physics.  That is, physics as conceived of at present.  Yes, a future “physics” might explain conscious activity, but only if physics is radically changed by incorporating an appropriate something extra that has been called “proto-consciousness” (also called the “proto-phenomenal”).  This view has been argued ably by David Chalmers in his book The Conscious Mind.

(In view of what has just been said, I add that the term “materialist” hides an important distinction that often is not made.  The materialist holds that, in principle, physics explains all events.  The distinction arises by posing the question: By “physics,” does he mean: (a) “physics, not changed from its present-day form via a change that is radical in the sense described above,” or does he mean: (b) “physics that may have undergone such a change”?  There is a danger that he may argue for the second and then claim to have established the first.)

Henceforth, by “materialism” I shall mean materialism of the strong kind, that is, materialism defined via interpretation (a).  It is this materialism that I reject.

Dualism is not the only alternative to materialism

[This subsection, and the two following that, are for the more keen reader.  For others, it is suggested that you take up the thread at the subheading “What are the boundaries of the mind?”]

Philosophers sometimes assume that if you’re not a materialist then you’re a dualist (though of course they know that you don’t have to be).  Dualism holds that the universe is ultimately composed of two kinds of “stuff”: matter (or, rather, the “physical”) and mind (or, rather, conscious phenomena).  The first philosopher to set out a dualist position in detail was Descartes.  Arguably dualism is the common-sense view for those of the Western tradition who have been educated (educated to, say, the end of first year at university or beyond).  (Note that dualism accounts for illusions and dreams.)

But in my case, while I reject materialism, I am disinclined to accept dualism, for the following reason.  The history of science sends a very strong message that the universe possesses a kind of unity.  The very kind of unity that leads many of us to reject the notion of the “supernatural”—a realm that interacts so weakly with the natural world, that attempts by science to detect supernatural items always seem to fail.  Less controversially, I cite three other examples of the unity of the universe.  First, chemistry used to look very different from physics, but it is now known that the laws of chemistry “reduce to” the laws of physics.  Secondly, even biology is now, in principle, reduced to physics.  And thirdly, within physics itself, since around 1850 it has been known that the laws of electricity and the laws of magnetism are inextricably intertwined.  This idea that the universe is “unified” makes dualism seem very unlikely.  The idea that there is unity strongly pushes one to assert monism—the view that there is only one kind of “stuff.”  On the other hand, experience and common sense surely seem to tell us that mind and the physical both exist, and that the one is quite unlike the other.  Thus we face a dilemma.  As a way out of this dilemma, one may suggest (as a number of philosophers have suggested) that (surprise!) the physical is to be explained in terms of the proto-conscious—a form of idealism.  (Idealism holds that “there  is only mind.”)

Part of me is strongly drawn to the above idealism that is based on the proto-conscious.   However, at this time, unfortunately, it is easy for a philosopher or scientist to argue that this attempted solution is not to be taken seriously.  The reason: One can argue that there is no positive evidence, such as a scientist would require before thinking of the view as more than a highly speculative hypothesis.  To “complete the loop,” one would seek to show that present-day fundamental physics hints fairly strongly that physics is to be explained, at a still more fundamental level, by something that has properties remarkably similar to proto-consciousness.

Is consciousness intimately linked to quantum mechanics?

Interestingly, some authors, indeed a large number of authors, have argued that quantum mechanics provides—or will eventually provide—a connection that counts as the sought-after “loop-completing” connection above.  (I shall not distinguish between “quantum mechanics” and “quantum physics.”)  I find that such arguments provide tantalizing clues.  In particular, Danah Zohar’s The Quantum Self (published in 1990) is quite impressive.  One reviewer (quoted in the book’s front pages) said that most such books “spin off into the ‘twilight zone,’ ” but that this is “a very thoughtful book, rooted in science but speculative in disposition.”  For Zohar, the quantum phenomenon of “Bose-Einstein condensation”—involving a certain type of “long-range correlation”—plays a key role.  Bose-Einstein condensation is a particular case of “entanglement,” which means that two, three, or even a huge number of particles (or systems) can have their states “mixed up together” in a way that is not possible in classical (i.e. non-quantum) physics.  The quantum state of a pair of particles (for example) cannot be given by describing the state of the one particle and also the state of the other.  Thus in quantum physics, it may be said that systems (collections of particles) are, in general, “holistic,” or that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  This terminology puts one in mind of Gestalt perception (the perception of wholes) in psychology.

Another point needs to be discussed before we return to the work of Zohar.  Recall that, in quantum mechanics, every physical entity has both a particle and a wave aspect.  The popular physics literature tends to be ambivalent regarding just what each of these two terms means—and hence what distinction is being made.  The distinction is perhaps better expressed as the contrast between what happens when a measurement is made (the particle aspect) and what happens between one measurement and the next (the wave aspect).  Note that here, the “wave aspect” already sounds somewhat non-physical (or ghost-like, if you like), for by definition it is never directly observed.

Be that as it may, Zohar’s proposal is that the physical is to be identified with the particle aspect, and the mental (consciousness) with the wave aspect.  The mental and the physical together then possess the sought-after “unity.”  Or rather, together they possess unity to the same extent as quantum physics itself possess unity.

It may be argued that the latter unity (the unity of quantum physics)is itself rather less than full unity, given that quantum physics is an amalgam of particle properties and wave properties.  This prompts the question: Is Zohar’s proposed view a monism, or a dualism?  Her own claim is that the view “transcends dualism.”

[At this point, it is appropriate to let you know what the metaphysical position of Chalmers is.  Initially drawn to materialism, after a great deal of thought he concluded that that view is not tenable.  He describes himself as a dualist.  (To be precise, he uses the term naturalistic dualism.  This is to distinguish his position from positions that hold that the mind has supernatural properties, such as when the mind is identified with the “soul” of Christian theology.)  Interestingly, however, this is not his last word on the matter, for he adds the following.  “Although I call [my] view a variety of dualism, it is possible that it could turn out to be a kind of monism.  Perhaps the physical and the phenomenal will turn out to be two different aspects of a single encompassing kind, in something like the way that matter and energy turn out to be two aspects of a single kind … I have some sympathy with the idea.  But it remains the case that if a variety of monism is true, it cannot be a materialist monism.”]

Objections to the “quantum” link

For perspective, I add that many quantum physicists—perhaps even a majority of them—are highly skeptical of any significant link between quantum mechanics and consciousness.  The next three paragraphs are devoted to discussing their position.

Skeptics about the “quantum” link may cite the following as an argument.  Consider human intelligence, which (naively at least) seems linked to consciousness.  Considerable work has been done towards an explanation of human intelligence, both by studying the brain, and by a “software” approach.  (The “software” approach may be via a computer simulation or by constructing a theoretical model represented by block diagrams. An interesting  account of such a model has been given by Marvin Minsky in his book The Society of Mind.)  Some impressive progress has been made, even though everyone agrees that we have have just scratched the surface.  The point to make is that the progress has been made, essentially without appeal to the strange features of quantum mechanics.

On the other hand, intelligence is not the same thing as consciousness.  And proponents of the quantum link see the hints of quantum mechanics, not so much in the functioning of the dominant hemisphere (usually the left hemisphere), but in the non-dominant (right) hemisphere.  The dominant hemisphere, concerned with words, logic and “linear” thinking, is the one most amenable to the “software” approach as developed so far.  The non-dominant hemisphere (as is well known) is more concerned with a holistic, intuitive way of thinking.

Before leaving the “quantum link” issue, I hope I may mention an incident as an aside.  My first supervisor for my PhD studies said (this was in about 1962) that “The argument for a link seems to be this: ‘In quantum mechanics there’s something peculiar going on, and in consciousness there’s something peculiar going on, so maybe there’s some connection between the two.’ ”  He added, “It’s a very poor argument.”  And he was very well versed in quantum mechanics, and also very well versed in Bose-Einstein condensation, which particularly fascinated him!

What are the boundaries of a mind?

*** STILL TO BRING PARA INTO LINE WITH CORRECTION SHEETS (page 6/10)**   One thing about the mind, however, seems to be becoming clear—a property of the mind that is very profound.  The property is strongly suggested by the work of Marvin Minsky (in his book The Society of Mind) and Douglas Hofstadter (in his book I Am a Strange Loop).  The idea goes back to the leading thinkers of Eastern mysticism more than two millenia ago.  (It’s difficult to attribute it to them for sure, for these people expressed their ideas largely in the language of paradox.  Recall “The world is one; but also the world is many.”  I guess that the same one/many claim was said to apply to the mind.  I also recall, as relevant, a question put by Buddhist teachers to trainee monks: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”)

Consider the statement, “For each (living, human) body, there is exactly one mind”: I shall call this “the one-to-one statement.”  Naively, the statement is true.  And perhaps it is true “for most practical purposes.”  But in a deeper sense I think the statement is not true. (And, of course, many others have said so in the past.)

Why? First, most adults are aware of what used to be called multiple personality disorder, now called dissociative identity disorder—in which there are at least two distinct and relatively enduring identities or dissociated personality states that alternately control a person’s behaviour. (Controversy surrounds this disorder; and probably in most diagnosed cases the separation into different personalities falls considerably short of being complete. However, it appears that there are a significant number of cases that come close to fitting the description of two separate personalities.) In the paradigm cases of this disorder, it seems to be a good description to say that there are (at least) two minds in the one brain.

Second, in respect of humans in general,  Minsky has shown that much of the intelligence that brains exhibit can be explained by regarding the brain as made up of a myriad of simple agents that communicate with one another.

Third, the one-to-one statement is open to criticism from the other direction.  Consider a community of two or more people: Hofstadter has much to say about this.  A husband and wife (for example) tend to communicate a lot with each other.  Each learns a lot about “the way that the other person thinks,” and on some matters person A may know more about person B than B knows about himself/herself.  Importantly, many of the memories that person B has, become known to person A, and such memories live on if B dies—or if B simply forgets.  There is then a sense in which “the mind of B resides partly in the brain of A.” [Interestingly, Hofstadter argues that the mind (Hofstadter uses the term “soul” or “the ‘I’ “.) of any person C typically resides to the extent of 90% in the body (brain) of person C, and 10% spread around among the bodies of other living humans with whom C has dealt.  (Thus, part of person C survives death—until all memory of C is lost.)]

Again, at times two people, A and B, act as a team, working cooperatively to achieve a goal.  In many such cases, what A does makes little sense, except in conjunction with what B does, and vice versa.  If one of them fails to do his allotted tasks, the usefulness of what the other does may be practically zero (compared to the usefulness of reaching the agreed goal).  If a “mind” is marked by the ability to carry out complex, goal-directed information processing, one would conclude that (at least in respect of tasks that neither could carry out alone), the pair of brains possesses a mind—one mind—that is greater than the sum of its parts. Note also that in team games such as football, much emphasis is placed on what is called team spirit.

*** STILL TO LINE UP (GX)  Here we must pause for a minute.  At the beginning of this essay “mind” and “the mental” were taken—defined—to be the realm of conscious experiences.  Why then is it reasonable to link the “mind” with goal-directed activity?  Here I shall give only a rather bare argument; a more complete account is given in the subsection that follows [rather, it will be posted fairly soon!].

When we speak of “a mind,” or “one mind,” we do not mean simply any old collection of conscious events.  The conscious events of one mind must be linked together in some natural way.  To get a handle on the links, think of a human mind.  There are links provided by memory, there is (to some degree) a constancy of a person’s character over time (which links various actions taken at different times), and presumably there are further links.  Consider the “higher” animals—believed to be conscious beings.  As we move “higher up”—as we move to animals whose goal-directed behaviour is more and more complex—surely we think that these animals have consciousness to a degree that is increasingly like our own.

*** STILL TO LINE UP (GZ)  Conscious experience itself is notoriously hard to study.  A proxy, such as the ability to carry out complex, goal-directed information processing, is much easier to study.  It may well be that, further down the track, we can usefully bring consciousness back in.  We now return to the main argument.

*** STILL TO LINE UP (GY)   What then is a “mind”?  For the purposes of this essay, I shall be content to move one step towards a proper definition.  Influenced by Hofstadter, Minsky and others, I shall define a “mind” to be a system of goal-directed information processing that is, to a fair degree, self-contained and also, to a fair degree, unified, where by the latter I mean that there is a fair degree of cooperation among the parts.  By way of further explanation, a system is very self-contained if it requires relatively little help from outside to achieve the relevant goals.  *** FOLL’G DEFINITION MUST BE CHANGED  And a system shows a high degree of cooperation if each part by itself would come nowhere near accomplishing the goal but the system as a whole does achieve the goal (perhaps with a little help from outside.)

This definition picks out a concept (“mind”) that is quite significant.  An immediate consequence is that being a mind is not an all-or-nothing affair.  Rather, given various systems that are candidates for the title “mind,” some are more mindlike than others.

Then, to say that the mental activity of each brain (or each human brain) constitutes one mind, and that nothing else is a mind, is a reasonable first attempt at picking out the minds.  But to gain insight at a fundamental level, we can apply the above definition of “mind” as follows. Initially we consider, as candidates for the title of “mind,” any system (or any collection of things).  For example, consider any closed surface in the 3-dimensional universe.  One would take, as a candidate, all the activity (physical or mental) going on in the region enclosed by that surface.  Further candidates can be picked out in a quite different way: as two examples, the worldwide telephone network and a particular tennis club.  Next, given any candidate,  the question arises, whether the candidate is to be counted as “highly mindlike,” “hardly mindlike at all,” or whatever.  The answer is determined by the degree to which the system exhibits complex goal-directed information processing, self-containment and cooperation.  Of the astronomical number of original candidates, this test will eliminate all but a relatively tiny number from having any appreciable degree of “mindhood.”

Now consider a particular human brain.  Among the huge number of subsystems of that brain, there are a small number of subsytems that score relatively highly on the scale of being mindlike, such as when the subsystem picks out one of Minsky’s “agents.”  Why not say that this subsystem is, to some significant degree, a mind?

*** STILL TO LINE UP (GK)  Furthermore, it may be speculated that such a system is conscious—perhaps fully, like us persons, or more likely, to some lesser degree.  To make this idea more plausible, let us consider two cases that are well known to medical science. (To these we may add the case described above, of persons that exhibit multiple personalities.)

First, the following is the state of affairs for subjects with a split brain.  (These are patients in whom the main bundle of nerves connecting the two hemispheres of the brain has been severed—as a last-ditch effort to prevent epileptic fits).  In most normal activities, the two hemispheres cooperate and an observer notices nothing unusual.  (This happens because the two hemispheres have access to more-or-less the same information via the visual field, the auditory field, etc.).  But if, via just one eye or just one ear, a request is made to perform a simple task, the one hemisphere has to rely on its own resources, and in some cases cannot perform a task that is easy for the other hemisphere (or is easy when both of the hemispheres know the common goal).  It even happens that the hemisphere that is uninformed about the goal can become very frustrated at the other one’s inability to succeed, with the result that the one hand (linked to the uninformed hemisphere) carries out aggressive actions on the other hand.  It is then very natural to say that there are two minds.

Second, in some people (with a mental illnesses of a certain kind) there are large swings in their vocal behaviour such that it is hard to deny that, for part of the time one subsystem of the brain is in control, while at other times a different subsystem is in control.  Rather as though there are two different persons.  Much the same thing is seen in everyday life, when a person is “overcome with anger.”  This completes the case for saying that there is a significant sense in which, on occasions, there are “many minds in one body.”

The opposite question is also worth asking: Are there situations where “one mind” can be usefully said to extend to more than one person (i.e. more than one body)? We have already described some plausible examples: persons A and B working cooperatively; and “team spirit” in a sport such as football. In addition, consider a meeting in which a group of people, including yourself, are to make a decision.  In such a situation, have you had the feeling that you’d prefer that the decision be made to do action A, but that at certain time you perceive that the main feeling in the room is, rather, to do B—and have you, as a consequence, immediately decided not to voice your opposition, because you feel that it’s appropriate for the meeting’s decision to come out as B? Arguably, your brain can then be considered as a part of a collective mind. And in passing, note the similarity between this scenario and the scenario in which Minsky’s agents interact in decision-making.

** THIS PARA MAY BE REVISITED**  (In that last example, and in the two earlier examples, an objection can be made that seems to be very powerful. One can ask: Who is having the relevant conscious experience(s)? If we are is to say that there’s a collective mind, shouldn’t we be prepared to say that the relevant conscious experiences are experienced by the collective mind and not by the individual persons?  But to say this about who has the conscious experiences appears to be a bridge too far. I hope to address this objection at a future time. Here I’ll make just a couple of points.  Consider the following counter-argument.  In the split-brain situation in which only one hemisphere is informed of the goal, it seems natural to ascribe some experiences to the left, and others to the right, hemisphere. Yet, in situations in which both hemispheres are kept adequately informed and coordinated via seeing, hearing and touch, such that the person’s actions seem normal, isn’t there a good case for saying that the person is having normal conscious experiences? A second point: In discussing the “objection”, one can take account of the probable fact that, in an important sense, the “experiencer” does not exist.)

** MAY BE REVISITED**  The whole case argued above, if it appeals, suggests two final questions.  Is there a “huge mind” or a “web of consciousness” that includes all humans?  Is there such a mind or web that even includes all sentient beings?  I may offer an answer at a future time.

*** GOT AND CHECKED TO HERE ( except for items marked by ***) ***

Physics

Besides the Professional Work, as far as time permits, I like to keep an eye on developments in the fundamental areas of physics.  (That is, “fundamental in the order of being,” not “fundamental in the order of knowing.”)  The main areas looked at are: (i) quantum mechanics (but passing over many aspects, such as qubits); (ii) cosmology, which is the the study of the large-scale aspects of the universe, including the Big Bang; and (iii) elementary particles, the particles-plus-waves that are—as far as we know at any given time—the ultimate (smallest) building blocks of the universe.  The reading here is not at the level of research papers—Scientific American is more like it.

Psychology of Happiness and Suffering

(usually called Clinical Psychology)

This growing area of valuable scientific knowledge is discussed elsewhere (click on Philosophy of Life, Ethics, etc. and scroll down that page to the heading Psychology of H&S).  Within this subject my current interest is particularly in “cognitive behavior therapy” and “mindfulness.”  I have been through major depression.

(In the above, some may challenge the use of the word “knowledge” when referring to such areas of psychology; they may brand the material concerned as, say, “opinion.”  Emphatically the material is knowledge: bear in mind that (i) scientific knowledge is produced only by honestly applying the scientific method, and (ii) in principle, scientific knowledge is always subject to revision in the light of new evidence.)

Other:

Other interests include: current affairs; aspects of mathematics; and astronomy.  When a mathematical problem arises (say, in the course of doing physics), I like to solve the problem myself, rather than search the literature for the solution.  This can save time, but it can also be overdone!

Leisure

Among the leisure activities that I enjoy is going to plays and musicals with my wife.  I have enjoyed my share of travel, both in Australia and overseas.  I like spending time with  family.  Our two grandchildren are a special joy: they are at that fascinating age, from one year up to the end of the early years at school.  I have quite a strong interest in genealogy and family history (though they’re on the back burner at present).  I also found time to edit and self-publish a book.  (Permit me to mention it here, though it was not really “leisure”!)  Published in 2007, the book consists of 57 short stories written by my father, together with much added commentary.  (Click on Family History, etc. for more on “genealogy” through to the book; in the case of the book, click and then scroll down to the heading “Literary work of J.B. Blair.”)

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