Possibly the guiding principle of modernity is that any problem can be solved if people just put their minds to it. Science and liberalism have been astonishing successes in raising the standard of living, in an objective sense, for more people than at any other time in history. People like Steven Pinker love to wax optimistic about how Enlightenment values and scientific progress have made the world an objectively better place to live than ever before, with the implication that things will only get better. But is this really true?
When someone utters a word that reaches your ear, the sound gets broken down into component waves via Fourier transform which vibrate within cochlear fluid and cause the movement of mechanoreceptor hair cells at the organ of Corti to produce electrochemical signals in the form of neurotransmitter release whereby the movement of the fluid stimulates the filaments of individual cells receptor cells to become open to receive the potassium-rich endolymph, causing the cell to produce an action potential which is transmitted through the spiral ganglion to the auditory portion of the vestibulo-cochlear nerve to the the brain, which signals to the cortex with new information that is then compared to predictions based on prior experience in a Bayesian fashion to produce the phenomenology of the experience of hearing, interpreting, and understanding the word. But where (and how), in all this, does the phenomenology of meaning arise?
When we perceive something, what is the phenomenological experience of that perception? Do we experience it, as Edmund Husserl would have said, as a series of objects in space? Or do we experience it in a doxastic way, as an immediate sense of there is particular thing X – a sort of proposition that happens without words? Or do we experience it as a web of significance as Martin Heidegger thought? Here I will explore some of these ideas.
I am currently reading David J. Chalmers’ 1996 book The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory which claims that, due to consciousness not being logically supervenient, there is no reductive explanation for consciousness. Thus Chalmers concludes that consciousness must be explained through a dualist paradigm. I have some issues with the argument.
Cartesian dualism has been a point of contention in philosophy since at least, well, Descartes. The dispute is whether the mind is a separate, immaterial entity from the physical body. Problems have plagued the dualist view since the time of Descartes, primarily how it is that the immaterial mind and material body interact.
Consciousness and qualia are problems that are still unsolved by philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. My way of viewing consciousness and qualia is that consciousness is the process by which our brains organize the world into working models and qualia is the ‘stuff’ that consciousness uses to generate those models. For better or worse, both of these exist due to evolutionary forces. That means they’re fine tuned to a very specific sort of survival, not for any pure understanding of the world or ourselves. In order to understand the limitations of our own minds, we need to know the inner workings of how the world is organized in our minds on a fundamental level. That requires knowing the structure of our minds.
The first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted into other forms of energy – for example, if you slap the wall, the mechanical energy that goes into the slap is converted into the energy needed to produce sound. With Einstein’s famous equation E=mc^2 it is easy to see that conservation of energy translates into conservation of matter.
This dictum applies to the physical reality that we inhabit. But what about the individual that experiences this physical reality? What is the mind?