Thursday, 22 March 2018

Underdetermination of Scientific Theory

How do we make sense of change in the world? We need to dream up a theory that explains what we see. We can understand why the black dots move in the way they do if we hypothesize that the dots reside on the apexes of invisible moving equilateral triangles. We might not be able to perceive the triangles, perhaps not even in principle, but we can confidently infer their existence.

But wait!

The movement of the black dots is equally explicable if we imagine the dots reside at the apexes of invisible moving squares. Or, if they are moving along the lines constituting a star shape. If we are unable, perhaps even in principle, of perceiving any of these shapes, then how could we know which theory is correct? Indeed, perhaps none of them are?

Likewise, change in our world is accounted for by the existence and interactions of subatomic particles. We cannot see these particles, not even in principle, but we can infer their existence, just as we can infer triangles for the movement of the black dots. So, does this mean that what we see with our naked eyes could appeal to quite different entities to explain what we see? I think so.

This is a problem in science since all possible evidence we could have radically underdetermines which theory is the correct one.
This is called the underdetermination of scientific theory by evidence. It also invites the question of whether our theories that utilize entities that can never be directly observed, actually depict a literal state of affairs.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The difference between science and metaphysics

Think of a computer game. In order to play a 3D game proficiently, we need to know how the game environment changes when the character moves and behaves in particular ways. The character you control who presses buttons in the game environment will cause certain things to happen in that environment. Shooting at certain spots will cause other things, such as "killing" a bot. And so on and so forth.

One can become extremely proficient at a game. Yet, at the same time, one might know absolutely nothing about what makes the game possible to exist in the first place, and why the game environment changes in the characteristic way it does. In other words, one might know nothing
about CPU's, RAM, or anything else about the underlying machinery of the computer, even though one might be better at the game than anyone else.

I submit that our science, together with the technology it has spawned, is analogical to playing a computer game proficiently.  I submit, that is, that science deals exclusively with the patterns discerned in reality and how the world changes with particular actions on our parts. Similar to the game, science tells us absolutely nothing about the underlying machinery of reality. Science tells us nothing about how or why the world exists at all and why it has the particular physical laws it does. That is what metaphysics deals with.

It might be thought that the existence of forces like gravity refutes this.  Objects fall to the ground because the force of gravity compels objects to fall down.  On this view, gravitation, electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, are intrinsic to reality and make reality behave as it does. 

But how do we know this?  We can observe an object falling, but we never observe the gravitational force that allegedly causes it to fall.  Or we never observe the warping of space-time that allegedly causes it to fall (indeed, what could a warping of space-time possibly mean?)

Consider the Earth as it orbits the Sun.  It is considered that the Earth is compelled to follow a circular path around the sun due to gravitational force.  If the force were to suddenly disappear, then the Earth would travel in a straight line at uniform velocity.   Now, why is it the case that motion in a straight line is considered to be natural motion with no forces requiring an object to move in such a manner, but circular motion is considered unnatural with a force required to constrain an object to follow such a path?  I suggest because it's simpler to think of reality in that way. 

At the end of the day, all we know about the world comes from our senses; mainly from our visual qualia.  Science is in the business of describing the patterns in our visual qualia.  In physics we find that mathematical equations, such as Newton's equation (
F = G(m1m2)/R2), describe the falling process.  But these equations are all we need from a scientific perspective.  Postulating such forces like gravity might make it easier to derive such equations, but they are not strictly necessary.

Note I am not saying that forces like gravity do not exist.  They might exist (although I don't think they do), but if they do that is part of the underlying machinery of reality, and hence comes under the purview of metaphysics.

Think back to our computer game. One's character can jump up and down. Why does the character fall back down to the ground? Because of gravity? Obviously not! The game operates according to its software instructions.

Now, let's consider our physical reality and why objects fall.  It might, as mainstream opinion holds, be due to some force intrinsic to reality. Or it might be because we're living in a kind of virtual reality created by beings existing "outside" of our reality, and the falling down process is just the way our reality is programmed.  Or it might be (to give my own personal opinion) that the explanation resides in the fact that reality is infused with teleology or entelechy, and that our scientific laws simply describes such innate propensities. But the point is that this is a metaphysical issue, not an empirical or scientific one.

Science is not in the business of providing literal explanations, rather it is merely in the business of describing reality. To suppose one can use physics to explain why reality exists at all, or why reality is described by the laws we find, is to misunderstand the legitimate scope of science.  For genuine explanations we have to look to metaphysics.

Similar posts by me:

Do scientific explanations actually explain?
What philosophical questions does science answer?
Is Reality real?
A very brief introduction to subjective idealism.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Does the evidence entail the brain creates the mind?

Does the fact that mental capacities vary according to the intricacy and condition of one’s brain show that consciousness, or the mind, could not exist without the brain?  Most of the scholarly community appear to think so.  But it seems to me that this is not correct.  Indeed, I submit it is quite a glaring error. To try and illustrate this I'll expand upon an analogy I've used before (the analogy was originally employed by J. M. E. McTaggart in "Some Dogmas of Religion" p105):

If a man is in a house he can see the sky by looking out of a window. But he can't see the sky if the curtains are drawn, or if no windows exist in the house. Would that mean the ability to see can't be intrinsic to the man? That's clearly nonsense since he could go out of the house and have an unrestricted view of the sky!

Nevertheless, we get the -- let's call them "housists" -- who insist that it simply must be the case that the windows somehow create our visual experiences. For, after all, slightly closing the curtains restricts one's ability to see the sky outside, and indeed, drawing the curtains completely totally destroys one's ability to see the sky outside. And what if the house had no windows at all? So it simply must be the case that the windows somehow creates one's visual experiences.

But how? This is the visual-house problem, and it's a problem that's fiercely been debated for millennia with no solution in sight. All the housists, all the great "intellects", the "experts", believe that somehow windows create vision, but they all propose different solutions as to how this is achieved. They vehemently attack each others "solutions" to this problem. And, indeed, their attacks on each other are all valid. And this is because it's not possible for windows to create vision! And it's an obvious impossibility because there is nothing about windows that could magically conjure up a visual experience from nothing. It would be miraculous. But try telling that to the "experts"!

It's obvious to us that the windows themselves do not create the man's visual experience of the sky. They merely enable him to see the sky. But the actual ability to see the sky resides within him.

But it seems to me the exact same argument applies to the self and brain. Whilst my self is "housed" by the brain, then the brain can affect many abilities of the self (perceiving, thinking etc). But it's just as implausible that the brain creates such abilities as windows create visual experiences.  See my essay where I explain this

It should be noted that this doesn't mean there's a life after death. Unlike the materialists I think there must be something non-physical, a non-physical self even. And it is this self that has the innate ability to see, think, etc.

Nevertheless, maybe this self cannot exist outside the brain. But I think there's many reasons to suppose it does.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

If I teleport from Mars, does the original me get destroyed?

This is not an essay written by me, but is an essay written by a certain Charlie Huenemann who is professor of philosophy at Utah State University. It's an Aeon article that can be found here. He makes the same argument as I do in my own:

Do we die when we teleport?

So if people don't understand my essay they can read this one. Or vice versa!

I am stranded on Mars. The fuel tanks on my return vessel ruptured, and no rescue team can possibly reach me before I run out of food. (And, unlike Matt Damon, I have no potatoes.) Luckily, my ship features a teleporter. It is an advanced bit of gadgetry, to be sure, but the underlying idea is simplicity itself: the machine scans my body and produces an amazingly detailed blueprint, a clear picture of each cell and neuron. That blueprint file is then beamed back to Earth, where a ‘new me’ is constructed using raw materials available at the destination site. All I have to do is step in, close my eyes, and press the red button…

But there’s a complication: a toggle switch allows me to decide whether the ‘old me’ on Mars is preserved or destroyed after I teleport back home. It’s this decision that is causing me to hesitate.

On the one hand, it seems like what makes me me is the particular way in which all my components fit together. I don’t think there is such a thing as a soul, or some ghost that inhabits my machine. I’m just the result of the activity among my 100 billion neurons and their 100 trillion distinctive connections. And, what’s more, that activity is what it is, no matter what collection of neurons is doing it. If you went about replacing those neurons one by one, but kept all the connections and activity the same, I would still be me. So, replacing them altogether at once should not matter, so long as the distinctive patterns are maintained. This leads me to want to press the button and get back to my loved ones – and back to Earth’s abundant food, water and oxygen, which will allow me to continue repairing and replacing my cells in the slower, old-fashioned way.

So: if I put the toggle in the ‘destroy’ setting, I should survive the transfer just fine. What would be lost? Nothing that plays any role in making me me, in making my consciousness my own. I should step in, press the button – and then walk out of the receiver back on Earth.

On the other hand, what happens if I put the toggle in the ‘save’ setting? Then where would I be? Would I make the trip back to Earth, and then feel sorry for the poor sap back on Mars (the old me), who will be facing slow death by starvation? Or – horrors! – will I be that old me, feeling envy for the new me who is now on Earth, enjoying the company of friends and family?

Could I somehow be both? What would that be like? Would I be seeing the scene on Earth superimposed upon the Martian landscape? Would I be feeling both pangs of hunger and exquisite delight in eating my first home-cooked meal in years? How would I decide at the same time to both walk over the dunes of red sand and go to sleep in my own bed? Is this even conceivable?

A residual conservatism in my nature prompts me to think that I would stay the old me, and the new me – whoever he is – would be like a twin to me, indeed more similar to the old me than any natural twin could possibly be. He would feel all the things I would feel, have the same memories, and be so very glad that he’s not starving on Mars. But, for all that, he would not be me: I would not be thinking or experiencing the things he is, nor would he be aware of my own increasingly desperate experience. But if this line of thinking is correct, I am suddenly very reluctant to turn the toggle over to the ‘destroy’ setting. For then it would seem that I would simply be annihilated on Mars, and some new guy on Earth, some guy a lot like me, would falsely believe he had survived the trip.

But why ‘falsely’? The memories are just as much in his brain as mine, are they not? From his point of view, he experienced stepping into the teleporter, pressing the button, and walking out onto Earth. He’s not lying when he says that that’s what happened. Still: I – the one who steps into the teleporter and presses the button – would not subsequently have this new guy’s experience of walking out onto Earth. My next experience after pressing the button would be – well, it would be no experience at all, as I would be dead.

Perhaps I need to adopt a more objective point of view. Suppose others were observing all this. What would they see? They would see me step in, press the button, and then – depending on the toggle setting – they would see either two copies of me, one on Mars and one on Earth, or else just one copy of me on Earth and some smouldering remains on Mars. There is no real problem, from this outsider’s point of view. There is no test an observer could perform to determine whether I survived the trip to Earth – no personality test, no special ‘me-ometer’ readings, no careful analysis of discrepancies among the neurons. Everything proceeds as expected, no matter what the toggle setting is.

Maybe there is something to be learned from this. Perhaps what seems to me an extremely obvious truth – namely, that there should be some fact to the matter of what I experience once I step in and press the button – is really not a truth at all. Maybe the notion that I am an enduring self over time is some sort of stubborn illusion. By analogy, I once joined a poker club that had been in existence for more than 50 years, with a complete change in its membership over that time. Suppose someone were to ask whether it was the same club. ‘It is and it isn’t,’ would be the sensible reply. Yes: the group has met continuously each month over 50 years. But no: none of the original members are still in it. There is no single, objective answer to the poker-identity question, since there is no inner, substantive soul to the club that has both remained the same and changed over time.

The same goes, perhaps, for me. I think I have been the same thing, a person, over my life. But if there is no inner, substantive me, then there is no fact to the matter about what my experience will be when ‘I’ press the button. It is just as the observer says: first there was one, and then there were two (with the toggle set to ‘save’), each thinking himself to be the one. There is no fact about what ‘the one’ really experienced, because ‘the one’ wasn’t there to begin with. There was only a complex arrangement of members, analogous to my poker club, thinking of themselves as belonging to the same ‘one’ over time.

Small comfort that is. I went into this problem wondering whether I could survive – only to find out that I am not, and never was! And yet the decision still lies before me: do I – do we? – press the button?

Note: I make no claim to originality in this thought experiment. A very similar sort of question was raised in 1775 by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, in a letter to Lord Kames referencing Joseph Priestley’s materialism: ‘whether when my brain has lost its original structure, and when some hundred years after the same materials are again fabricated so curiously as to become an intelligent being, whether, I say, that being will be me; or, if two or three such beings should be formed out of my brain, whether they will all be me’. I first encountered it, with the Martian setting, in the preface to the essay collection ‘The Mind’s I’ (1981), edited by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. The British philosopher Derek Parfit made much hay out of the idea in his book ‘Reasons and Persons’ (1984). And the podcaster C G P Grey provides an insightful illustration of the problem in his video ‘The Trouble with Transporters’ (2016).

Aeon counter – do not remove
Charlie Huenemann

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

If all Scientific Knowlege were destroyed

Richard Feynman once said:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

I definitely wouldn't say that! I would say:

"Subtract the qualitative from the physical world, the rest follows patterns described by mathematics".

In a thread on facebook people were suggesting things like "know yourself" and mentioning micro-organisms. 

"Know your self" will not precipitate any scientific discovery. Neither will saying everything is made up of atoms. The ancient Greeks said both. Neither precipitated much scientific progress. I mean "know yourself" has nothing to do with science!

What precipitated modern science in the 17th Century was the notion that physical reality -- at least the quantifiable aspects -- are governed/described by physical laws written in the language of mathematics potentially discernible by us human beings. See my essay:

Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia

Regarding atoms, micro-organisms and the like. They need to learn to walk before they can run. They need to find out how to conduct science, not tell them about scientific discoveries.

Even if they could make sense of sub-microscopic particles or micro-organisms, remember the saying:

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime".

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Could there have been absolutely nothing?

You know, I can grasp that perhaps my life has no purpose, that we are all biological robots living out our purposeless lives in a purposeless Universe. 

I can grasp too that the human race as a whole has no purpose. Soon -- a few thousand, a few million years time, or however long -- the very last human being will die and humanity will be no more, not ever again. And in a sense human beings might as well never have existed. Yes, I can grasp that.

But when I try to grasp that the totality of all thingsthe whole Universe (or multiverse or whatever), has no purpose, and might as well never have existed? I find that I momentarily grasp the enormity of that, or at least I seem to get the faintest glimpses of it, but then my mind immediately slips away. As if I'm thinking, but there must be something, something beyond the Universe. To think that absolutely nothing could have been the case, is too mind-blowing. I find my mind cannot grasp it.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Do we die when we teleport?

Consider a teleporter. Let's say you go into the departure teleportation booth. Your body is scanned. Your body is then disintegrated and simultaneously, from the information that was scanned, a replica is created in the destination teleportation booth. As part of your ongoing experiences, you will have seemed to "jump" from the departure booth to the destination booth. A splendid way of travelling!

What implications are there though if the machine malfunctions and there's a 10 minute delay before your body is disintegrated? Apart from this, the teleporter works, and the replica is still created at the time it should be. So, for 10 minutes there will be 2 versions of you. As part of your ongoing experiences, you might still seem to "jump" to the destination booth. However! Equally possible is that you seem to remain exactly where you are. If the latter pertains, then how would you feel about your impending disintegration 10 minutes hence?

Well, of course, one would be horrified. One would typically presumably think this shows the copy is not actually you -- it is merely a copy.

But wait!

The replica is physically identical. Hence (assuming materialism), the replica's memory and personality are also absolutely identical. And the replica looks absolutely identical too.

To insist, nevertheless, that the replica is not a legitimate continuation of the original person is, therefore, to deny that one's physicality wholly determines one's self. That there must be something over and above one's total physicality -- a soul or whatever. But this then is a straightforward denial of materialism.

So materialists cannot deny that a physical replica would be you, it is simply incompatible with all forms of materialism to maintain this.

But do we have a paradox here? In the case of the malfunctioning teleporter, what if you do not appear to "jump" to the destination booth but remain exactly where you are? How can the replica, therefore, be you?? Is this then a paradox? No, not for the materialist.

Imagine the following scenario. Imagine that every infinitesimal fraction of a second you are getting teleported from place to place. Obviously, if you keep your eyes open, you'll just see a confusing blur. But you could close your eyes, and everything would seem to be normal. You could be thinking of a problem, daydreaming, or whatever. Nothing would seem different as compared to when you have your eyes closed normally, except in the teleportation scenario you are continuously being killed and spontaneously coming into being every infinitesimal fraction of a second!

Now, if we suppose that precisely this is happening in our second by second everyday existence then there is no paradox for the materialist, at least not in this regard. We do not actually exist from one second to the next -- a persisting self, and indeed a self, is an illusion. It merely seems we have a continuous existence.


To see why I believe such a momentarily existing self is incoherent, see my following blog entry:

Does the self as opposed to a mere "sense of self" exist?

Also, see an entry from my other blog where it seems that Buddhism shares a similar belief:
Buddhism and a persisting self

Finally, the following webcomic featuring a teleportation machine might be of interest.

Ian Wardell

Update 2/8/17: Just posted an essay on the same topic written by a certain Charlie Huenemann who is professor of philosophy at Utah State University. He comes to the same conclusion as me. It might be useful to read if people didn't find me sufficiently clear.
If I teleport from Mars, does the original me get destroyed?

Monday, 12 June 2017

How could we see, hear, taste, touch and smell during an "out of body experience" (OBE)?

Someone in a Facebook group who has had a near-death experience was stumped when a nurse asked him how he could see, hear, taste, touch and smell without their five sense organs during their OBE.

Clearly the nurse, and indeed many others, think that from the fact that damage to one's eyes or visual part of the brain leads to a reduction in vision or even blindness, that both one's eyes and one's brain are crucial to being able to see. The same argument applies to the other four senses.

It seems to me though that this argument is without merit. Here is an analogy. If one is in a house, the transparency of the glass within the windows is an essential condition for being able to see the sky. However, this only applies whilst we are in the house. If we were to venture outside, the windows are an irrelevance. We would have an unrestricted view of the sky.

I suggest exactly the same could be the case during an OBE. Let's suppose the ability to see and hear and smell are intrinsic aspects of a non-physical self or soul. In that case, during an OBE we should have unrestricted vision; maybe even vastly enhanced vision and the ability to see in all directions at once. But, whilst the non-physical self or soul is "housed" within one's body, we can only see, hear and smell by virtue of a functioning brain and unimpaired senses. Here, though, the brain and senses are only playing a similar role as the windows do within our house in the analogy outlined above.

For many of those who believe in an afterlife, the hypothesis is that the brain suppresses or filters conscious experiences rather than creates them. A properly functioning brain will allow us to see, hear, taste, touch and smell. And indeed, come to that, a properly functioning brain can allow us to be able to perceive, think, feel, and deliberate too. Contrariwise, a dysfunctional brain might reduce or completely suppress our senses and mental capacities just as dirty windows or drawing the curtains can impede or completely obscure our view of the sky.

None of this of course entails that the brain does play such a role. But the fact our five senses and mental capacities can be impaired, if not eliminated, due to a dysfunctional brain does not in itself entail that all these abilities could not be had by non-physical selves or souls. And indeed, should the above reasoning be correct, one might expect that a disembodied self or soul might well have enhanced senses and an enhanced mental capacity. This can be compared to having a greater view of the sky once we have exited from a house.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Some quotes by me

Various quotes I've made on facebook, sometimes after a few beers!

There's 2 possibilities:

a) This is the only life there is. When we die we simply cease to exist. Our lives and the Universe are, in a sense, ultimately absurd. In that case nothing we do ultimately matters. How much money we accumulate and our social status are transitory and ultimately unfulfilling, and in the end are to no avail since we all end up in the same boat -- namely eternal non-existence. I suggest instead we just live our lives, have a laugh, have a few drinks, be kind to others, but most importantly of all not to take life too seriously.

b) Or there is a "life after death", and perhaps an ultimate purpose to our existence and to all things. But if we continue to exist after death, why do we think what we achieve in this life is so terribly important? If there is some ultimate purpose to life, we don't know what it is, but presumably it will have nothing to do with how much money we accumulate and our social status. I suggest instead we just live our lives, have a laugh, have a few drinks, be kind to others, but most importantly of all not to take life too seriously.

 Nothing to do
I'm astonished to hear that many people -- if not indeed most people -- would find it profoundly boring not being in a full-time job as an employee. That they would have nothing to do all day. Indeed, many people claim that when they were unemployed they were sleeping 12 hours a day and were just depressed.

I have to say I find this utterly bizarre. So going for walks in the countryside; visiting museums; learning and becoming proficient in some subject and perhaps even becoming an expert; discussions on a variety of subjects on the Internet and elsewhere; reading novels; playing games; exercising; just simply thinking about reality and our place in it and what it all means; laying in a field in the warm bright sunshine in the arms of the one you love. And so on and so on and so on... None of this has any appeal? Peoples' only aim in life is to sell their labour to an employer? Nothing else in life is worth doing? Wow...

In the Future

I wonder what it will be like in the year 802,701? Or in the 111,394th Century approximately 11 million years from now? Will human beings be long gone? Will there still be complex life on Earth? Or will the Earth be wholly devoid of life due to some catastrophic event? Such an event will surely be very unlikely. Perhaps gigantic creatures like dinosaurs will exist then. I'll probably never know.
In a Million Years time

I was just thinking. Suppose we could go into the future exactly 1 million years from now. What would we see?

I would speculate that our technological civilisation will have disappeared and most probably that we will have become extinct and the Earth will have returned close to a pristine condition.

Will other life forms have evolved with limbs and something like opposable thumbs so they can manipulate their environment? Probably not, but maybe. But even if they did arise I doubt they would build a technological civilisation like ours.

The last human ever

I wonder who will be the very last human to ever live, what his/her life will be like, what his/her thoughts will be, and when this will occur.

We're all on a Train

We're all on this train. We do not know where our fellow passengers come from, nor even where we ourselves come from. Perhaps people just materialise out of nothingness, or perhaps people just don't remember. And we do not know where people will go when they finally get off the train. But we know we will finally get off at some point. To some strange destination, or to oblivion -- we do not know. Meanwhile the train and its inhabitants are our world -- the only world we know. Let's read, chat with our fellow passengers, play games. Something to do before we alight from the train to our new strange destination, or to oblivion.
What are we?

We find ourselves in this world not knowing what we are, who we are, or why we are here.  Are we are mere meat robots with no free will living out our purposeless lives in a purposeless Universe?  Or are we souls with an ultimate purpose to our existence -- a purpose which we cannot as of yet know, or possibly even comprehend. Worst of all we don't know what our ultimate destiny might be, whether it will be oblivion or whether it will be to ascend into some mysterious new reality.

In our day to day lives let's just be happy for the day and have a few pints of beer.

What's it all about?

Questions about what the world is, what we are, why we are here, what it all means, are questions we surely are all interested in. But most of us react angrily when people ask such questions. It's something most of us don't want to think about. Most people want to concentrate on the "real world" -- the practicalities of existence, the transient issues of the moment.

I have been told that people are not interested in such ultimate questions because they are concerned about the next meal and being able to make a living.  Yes, but questions about what we are, what the world is, are nevertheless questions which some of us will entertain no matter what our circumstances. They are perennial questions. Struggling for a living will perhaps necessitate that we cannot find time to pen such thoughts or even think about them too deeply, but they are there underneath the surface of existence nevertheless.

What's it all about eh? We find ourselves on the surface of a huge ball floating in the midst of an infinite sea of nothingness. And yet . . and yet . . people just live out their lives thinking exclusively about the mundane, being concerned about wearing the right clothes, and condemning those who think beyond everyday concerns...


Occupying my 13 year old body

I'm just wondering what it would be like if my soul travelled back in time and inhabited my 13 year old body? I'm guessing I'd lose my current intelligence, but yet retain my current memories as an adult. But if I do keep my memories, it seems I might understand more on, say, something like philosophical issues, than I originally did when I was 13. But I wouldn't understand as much as I do now.

The world of work

I don't really like the idea of a job where you're working for someone else from 9 to 5 and you don't find the work interesting at all, but find it dull and repetitious. The type of work where you occasionally look at your watch and hope 5pm soon comes round. And the weekend! Wishing our lives away. Then feeling gloomy on a Sunday evening as it's soon going to be the start of another week.

The thing is we live finite lives. Maybe there's a "life after death", and I think there is. But maybe I'm wrong and there isn't. But while we're healthy is it really a good idea to spend most of our daylight hours hoping that the evening and weekend will soon roll round?

There's making friends and the general camaraderie with work colleagues. And there's the issue that we all need to have money! But the point I'd like to make is that there seems to be something fundamentally wrong and unsatisfactory about this whole arrangement. Something fundamentally wrong about the way modern society works. Unsatisfactory and unfulfilling and ultimately dispiriting to our yearning souls.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Arguing with people

It's an extremely common tendency to try and justify one's position on any topic by seeking out those opponents who advance the most naive, the weakest and most ridiculous arguments. Or, when arguing with more thoughtful opponents, to attribute to them a more naive or simplistic position than the one they actually hold and attack that.

In addition, it seems that people often appear to deliberately avoid clarity and revel in being abstruse. My suspicion is they do this in order to give the impression of winning the argument. In reality though their words convey little, or indeed, any meaning.

It is admittedly very tempting to simply attack your weakest opponents. Or attack the weakest arguments against your position. Or to employ other underhanded strategies in order to "win". It's easy, requires little thought, makes you feel superior, and of course most importantly of all it garners support and admiration from those who share your sentiments and beliefs in the matter in hand.

These tactics might rally those who subscribe to your view, but do precious little . . nay . . nothing to justify your own position. If we're sincerely interested in the truth, then what is needed is to seek out those opponents who provide the most challenging and sophisticated arguments, and to address those specific arguments. If you can outargue them and even make them appear to be foolish, then you'll have some confidence that your position might possibly be correct.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The claim that people who have had a "near death experience" are not dead.

People keep saying that NDE's necessarily cannot provide any evidence for an afterlife since those who underwent the experience didn't really die. Presumably, the idea here is that if they didn't actually die, then whatever they experienced, cannot be of any afterlife realm.

There are two issues here. The first issue is, how do they know these people never actually died? When asked this question they say it's true by definition! They returned to life, and anyone who returns to life, by definition, never actually died.

But I submit this then makes their original assertion vacuous. The issue here is whether it is possible that what NDErs experience is a glimpse of some afterlife realm. Such a possibility can only be ruled out if we are in a position to surmise their brains are perfectly capable of having wholly produced these experiences. But, if during an NDE, there is no detectable brain activity, or there is insufficient brain activity, then it matters not one whit whether one labels this as still being "alive" or dead. From a metaphysical neutral standpoint, the most straightforward hypothesis under this scenario is that those undergoing an NDE are perceiving some type of external reality, even though the details seen might be shaped and moulded by one's implicit and cultural expectations. Of course, it might be contested whether the NDE really occurred during this time period, or it can be argued that there might have been undetectable brain activity that produced the experience. But it remains the case that this experience does provide evidence for an afterlife realm -- non-scientific evidence, perhaps, but evidence nevertheless. And this evidence could be very powerful if we have good reasons to surmise the NDE indeed occurred when there was no detectable brain activity.

The second issue is that, in any case, it's not entirely clear to me why a person couldn't experience the afterlife realm whilst still alive. And I mean alive in the proper sense as in some detectable brain activity. If we are destined to travel to some afterlife realm(s) at death, then whilst still alive it presumably must be the brain that prevents the perception of this realm or realms. Perhaps it is some particular region of the brain that does this. If this region is compromised in its functionality, or is simply not as active as it normally is, then perhaps one could still be alive and yet have some perception of this other reality or realities. If the skeptic wants to maintain that this is impossible, the onus is upon him to explain why.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Who am I?

Worth watching for those who know nothing about philosophy.

What is it that makes me me throughout my life? We might say the self, but what is the self? My body changes throughout my life. My interests, intelligence, pre-occupations and so on change throughout my life.  So shouldn't my self too literally change throughout my life?

In order for the self not to literally change and avoid the conclusion I am literally a different person at time A than at time B, then the self has to be something distinct from all these things. I suggest the self is the author, or the experiencer, of one's thoughts, interests, and more generally of one's experiences. That is to say that in addition to experiences, there is an experiencer that has them.  Experiences don't just exist without an experiencer, or self, to experience them. It is this author/experiencer/self that we can hypothesize remains unchanged.

Note that materialists can not believe in such an
author/experiencer/self.  This is because the materialist would have to identify any such self with some physical thing or processes.  But physical things and processes are in a constant state of change, and certainly our bodies are.  Hence, there is nothing unchanging which they can call a self.

They can of course believe in a sense of self.  But the sense of a self differs from the actual self in a similar way to which a sense of a table differs from the actual table.

See the following blog entries by me:

Is a "life after death" conceivable?   Part 3: What is the Self

Does the self as opposed to a mere "sense of self" exist?
The self and its experiences

Monday, 27 March 2017

What philosophical questions does science answer?

Just reading the following recently published article:
Mind, Matter And Materialism

Near the beginning the author says:

"Questions that once lay firmly in philosophy's domain have now fully entered the realm of science".

This is something I hear from people frequently.   Unfortunately they never seem to specify what philosophical questions science has answered or shed light upon.  I'm not necessarily saying that science doesn't, it depends what they have in mind.

But at first blush it seems to me the domains of science and philosophy are distinct. First of all we need to understand that science doesn't provide explanations as such, but mere descriptions. Consider playing a computer game. You need to know how the computer game environment will react when your character performs certain actions. You could be really excellent at the game and have a comprehensive knowledge of exactly how the game environment changes with specific actions. However, that furnishes you with no understanding of how the game is possible and why the game has the rules it does, or even why the game exists at all. The player might know nothing about the underling computer architecture or software in other words.

How the game environment reacts seems to me to be analogically akin to what science is attempting with its description of our physical reality. How the game is possible, why the game exists, why the game has the rules it has,
seems to me to be analogically akin to asking how and why the world exists and why it has the attributes it does. Questions that belong exclusively to the domain of philosophy.

How can knowing how the game environment changes, or physical reality changes with particular actions, help with any philosophical questions?

Monday, 13 February 2017

Is suffering incompatible with a higher purpose?

If it's considered that suffering is incompatible with some higher purpose to our existence, then what would the world have to be like so that it is compatible with some higher purpose? Perhaps if no one ever experienced any pain; not just physical but mental pain too? And no one ever experienced misery, least of all depression? Indeed, that our lives are in a constant state of maximum happiness?

And what would such happiness consist in? Pleasures? Or the feeling like you had as a child when you woke up on a Christmas day morning? Or if you were in a permanent state of a certain type of intellectual satisfaction?

Obviously that's silly. But perhaps people mean there's too much suffering -- not that we shouldn't have any suffering at all. But how do we work out how much suffering would be compatible with some higher purpose?

I think arguably suffering, pain, anguish, despair, loss of a loved one etc, could conceivably be held to be compatible with some higher purpose. For much of history, mankind lived a life full of dangers with the constant threat of death, and suffering, and loss. Close brushes with death from predators with the consequent comradeship and camaraderie when others save your life, and you theirs. The collective outpouring of emotions, the bitter and sweet taste of life in the raw.

In the modern west we are cosseted from all the harsh elements of life. I'll probably die an old man rather than get eaten by a predator. But perhaps, safe and rich as we are, the modern western way of life loses something. It loses the sheer rapture of being alive. If we never experience any dangers, then the sheer thrill of having overcome dangers is also lacking.

So it's not clear to me that suffering is necessarily incompatible with some higher purpose. The problem here is we don't know what the purpose of life is! Hence I think it's impossible to answer such a question.

Maybe it is, but until we know what the purpose of life is, why we are here, how can we say what the nature of our lives should be like?

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Feel the rapture of being alive!

Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth said:
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
Our modern world is not ideal for experiencing the rapture of being alive -- indeed the precise opposite. I reckon that's why so many people get depressed. Instead, life has to be an adventure. Like it might well have been in the stone age. A journey with ongoing meaningful experiences. Close brushes with death with the consequent comradeship and camaraderie when others save your life, and you theirs. The collective outpouring of emotions, the bitter and sweet taste of life in the raw. All this with the implicit feeling that death is just another journey and all will come right in the end.

Of course what Joseph Campbell articulating here is how we get satisfaction and fulfilment in life. Which is a different question to what the meaning of life is, as in the sense of what is the purpose or ultimate goal of existence is. See a blog entry by me here. Having said that, I do agree that perhaps most people, when lamenting about what the meaning of life might be, are motivated by a dissatisfaction with their own lives that they undoubtedly would not express if they felt the rapture of being alive.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

A creator or a multiverse?

Let's imagine there only existed one planet in the entire Universe, and it is Earth. Now I would suggest that it would be utterly extraordinary if it just happened to be ideally suited for life. It would be far far more likely that it would be a planet wholly devoid of any life.

But, of course, there are at least trillions of planets in the Universe. The overwhelming majority are likely to be hostile to life. So why do we happen to live on one suitable for life? Well, obviously because we couldn't have evolved on any of the planets hostile to life!

Now, the Earth is ideally suited for life. Hence, even if we knew of the existence of no other planets, it would be overwhelmingly likely that zillions of other planets must exist.

This is the precise same argument whereby we infer there must exist zillions of other Universes, all with different physical properties. In the overwhelming majority of such Universes life simply could not arise. The reason why we live in an incredibly unusual Universe that happens to permit life is precisely the same reason why we happen to live on a planet which is ideally suited to life.

The other alternative is to suppose there is only one Universe. The reason why the physical constants and properties permit life must be because some outside influence -- a creator of some description -- constrains the Universe to be that way.

Obviously scientists prefer the multiverse hypothesis.

Monday, 19 September 2016

An extremely short refutation of materialism

Think of Lego. You can stick the bricks together and make lots of interesting things. But if sticking together a load of lego bricks -- even if the bricks could move in relation to each other -- somehow produced pain or greenness or hope or despair or intentionality, then that would be kind of magical.
Exactly the same applies to the ultimate constituents of matter.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Keith Augustine in "The Myth of an Afterlife"

 1. Does the thesis that the brain produces the mind cohere well with our overall background knowledge?

In the book The Myth of an Afterlife two of the authors Keith Augustine and Yonatan I. Fishman pen the following:

Of course, compared with a hypothesis that coheres well with our overall background knowledge, an “extraordinary” hypothesis at odds with our knowledge about how the world operates would generally be assigned a low prior probability. Accordingly, insofar as the independence thesis entails that a separable soul can perceive, think, feel, and deliberate apart from any biological basis at all (sometimes suggesting a stark break in our evolutionary connection to all other forms of life on earth), and apparently requires either that a nonphysical soul violates well-established physical laws by interacting with the brain, or else that the soul is itself a physical thing completely unknown to science, it is a highly extraordinary hypothesis that should be assigned a low prior probability. For the independence thesis to be more plausible than its antithesis on Bayesian grounds, we would need a considerable amount of compelling evidence in its favor—and at the expense of the dependence thesis—to outweigh its initially low prior probability. (page 260).

The independence thesis here refers to the notion that we survive our deaths in some form. Contrariwise, the dependence thesis refers to the notion that the mind and consciousness depend on the brain, hence they cannot exist without the brain. 

Here and elsewhere in the book (this is a huge book of 700+ pages with a total of 29 contributors all sporting impressive academic credentials), it is repeatedly hammered home ad nauseam -- and especially by Keith Augustine -- that the dependence thesis is consistent with the rest of our scientific knowledge of the world. And, conversely, the independence thesis is emphatically not.

Now, in order to claim this, consciousness must at least be potentially scientifically explicable. It is not sufficient to hold that consciousness simply appears as a brute fact once there is a certain level of physical complexity. We require a scientific explanation for how the brain produces consciousness, or we at least need to be confident that one will be eventually forthcoming.

But I have previously argued that it is not possible to provide such a scientific explanation for consciousness, at least not based on our current conception of science. I go into some detail as to why this is so in both my Science, the Afterlife, and theIntelligentsia (especially parts 4 and 5), and my Neither Modern Materialism nor Scienceas currently conceived can explain Consciousness (especially part 5). But, in a nutshell, I argue that because science limits itself to the quantifiable or that which can be measured, then it necessarily follows that it cannot in principle explain consciousness since the latter is essentially characterised by qualia (construed in its broadest sense) and intentionality (in its philosophical sense).

It is important to realise it is not only me that thinks there’s a problem here. The precise nature of the relationship of consciousness, or mind, to one's body, and more specifically how the brain can give rise to the mind, has been labelled the mind-body problem. There have been a variety of proposed solutions to this problem, but for each and every proposed solution there are dissenting voices questioning its intelligibility. And, to correct a possible misconception, although the overwhelming majority of scientists and philosophers adopt what they label as a materialist position, it’s not as if they’re all in agreement with each other – indeed far from it! There are many varieties of materialism and there is much disagreement as to which of the available varieties, if any, might be the correct one. Indeed, there are a small but increasing number of vocal philosophers and scientists who hold that no proposed materialist position can be argued to be adequate. If this is so, then how the mind relates to the brain is up in the air. Indeed, in recognition of the apparent irreconcilable nature of this relationship, and the problem of why the mind or consciousness exists at all, the philosopher David Chalmers has coined the phrase the hard problem. 
Astonishingly The Myth of an Afterlife has very little to say about the mind/body problem. Where it is mentioned it is to attack dualism ( i.e the notion that the brain and mind are distinct, even if the former somehow gives rise to the latter). One will search this massive volume in vain for any mention of the well known difficulties for both materialism and for providing a scientific explanation of how the brain produces consciousness. Difficulties, as I make clear in my two essays, I regard as insurmountable; at least with our present conception of what comprises the material or physical. It is of little avail to stress the fact that mental capacities inevitably vary according to the intricacy and condition of one’s brain, if the intended conclusion -- that the latter produce the former -- cannot, in principle, be rendered scientifically explicable. Of course, undoubtedly the authors would not agree with arguments suggesting that the difficulties for providing a scientific explanation are insurmountable, or indeed that there are any difficulties in principle at all here.  But such arguments should at least be addressed!   They had over 700 pages to do so. Instead, much of this volume, and by differing authors, keeps repeating the same tired points over and over again -- namely the fact that mental states are altered by physical states of the brain. All well and good, but if the process whereby brain activity produces consciousness is wholly mysterious, if not effectively magical, then clearly one ought to be more open to alternative hypotheses.


2. Is it possible we could perceive, think, feel, and deliberate without a brain?

But are there any alternative hypotheses? Even if materialism should be false, doesn't the fact that mental capacities vary according to the intricacy and condition of one’s brain show that consciousness, or the mind, could not exist without the brain? Specifically, what about Augustine's and Fishman's claim that a disembodied soul or self would not be able to 'perceive, think, feel, and deliberate'? Their reasoning here is that the brain is always implicated when these abilities are present, moreover our mental capacities are often compromised with dysfunctional brains, hence the brain must play some essential pivotal role. This being so then it follows a disembodied soul or consciousness could not possibly perceive, think, feel, and deliberate.

In responding to this, we should first of all remind ourselves that we have no idea, even in principle, how the brain all by itself could explain consciousness, and hence we have no idea of how the brain could 'perceive, think, feel, and deliberate' either. To that extent the possibility of there existing some sort of substantial self interacting with its brain, might provide that essential ingredient in some expanded physics. (See part 6 -- "The Mind-Brain Correlations" of my Neither Modern Materialism nor Science as currently conceived can explain Consciousness.) But perhaps even here such a self would require a brain? Does the fact that the brain is always implicated in our conscious experiences -- at least while we’re embodied -- entail that it plays a crucial role in the production of such experiences? Or does it at least make it extraordinary likely that it plays a crucial role in the production of such experiences?

Here we need to ask ourselves what the alternative is. Certainly, given the reality of the mind-brain correlations, then we should surely at a minimum acknowledge that the brain at least influences the abilities to perceive, think, feel, and deliberate, even if it does not produce them. A possibility that presents itself here is that such abilities might be innate to the self or soul, but that the brain serves to either facilitate or inhibit them. The brain, that is, might function in a roughly analogical manner to a type of reducing valve. So here our perceptions, thoughts, feelings and so on, could still be attributes of the soul, but while the soul operates through the brain, a dysfunctional brain could impair their manifestation where as a normal functioning brain allows their manifestation. To use an analogy employed by J. M. E. McTaggart:
If a man is shut up in a house, the transparency of the windows is an essential condition of his seeing the sky. But it would not be prudent to infer that, if he walked out of the house, he could not see the sky because there was no longer any glass through which he might see it. (Some Dogmas of Religion p105).

This view of the relationship of the self to its brain is sometimes referred to as the filter hypothesis. The authors do recognise this hypothesis but do not find it compelling. They say:

If the mind is “not generated by the brain but instead focused, limited, and constrained by it” (Kelly et al., 2007, p. xxx), the filter theory entails that a brainless mind will be expanded, less limited, and unrestricted by brain function. [This implies] that the greater the disruption in brain function, the “freer” the mind will be from its neural confines, and hence the clearer one’s cognitive function will be. For example,we would expect the progressive destruction of more and more of the brain’s “filter” by Alzheimer’s disease to progressively “free” more and more of consciousness, and thus increase Alzheimer’s patients’ mental proficiency as the disease progresses. (p230)

But it's not clear to me why a dysfunctional brain would necessarily make the mind "freer". In McTaggart's analogy, one could make the windows larger, or more transparent, but they could be also made smaller, or the view less clear by putting net curtains up. Or consider a radio. The internal components do not produce the voices and music from the radio, and in this sense might be comparable to the filter model of the soul/brain relationship. Would damaging the internal components of the radio improve the quality of the sound? Presumably not, so why would a damaged or dysfunctional brain necessarily result in an expanded mind?

It's also worth mentioning that in rare instances one's mind
 does appear to improve alongside a dysfunctional brain; or at least the mind improves in some respects.  The authors mention Alzheimer's disease. Pertinent here is a phenomenon called terminal lucidity that has been described by German biologist Michael Nahm as:

The (re-)emergence of normal or unusually enhanced mental abilities in dull, unconscious, or mentally ill patients shortly before death, including considerable elevation of mood and spiritual affectation, or the ability to speak in a previously unusual spiritualized and elated manner. (From here p89)

There's also hyperthymesia, the ability to remember practically everything that's ever happened to you. Hence a person afflicted by this condition has the ability to precisely recall what they were doing on a specific day that happened many years ago. And then there's acquired savant syndrome. In the link the author Darold A. Treffer describes this condition as 'instances [where] dormant savant skills emerge, sometimes at a prodigious level, after a brain injury or disease in previously non-disabled (neurotypical) persons where few such skills were evident before such CNS injury or disease'.

We currently lack an understanding of how such a self interacts with its brain, but, in stark contrast to any materialist position, I see no reason why the filter hypothesis might not be true. It does, after all, seem to be consistent with the fact that our mental capacities are normally impaired with brain damage, but on rare occasions are enhanced. On the other hand, reconciling any type of materialist position with these rare instances where mental capacity is enhanced, could be a challenge. Note that this is a challenge over and above the philosophical reasons for rejecting any type of materialist position I have articulated in my two essays.

It is to be conceded that this filter hypothesis does generate a whole host of questions. For one, why on earth does the self or soul operate through a brain in the first place? I do not profess to be able to give any answers as to why there should exist a physical reality at all, but given that one does, then it seems the self or soul operates through a brain to enable us to interact with this physical reality. In addition, I would speculate that it might be the case that part of the brain’s purpose is to filter out the perception of other realities, and conscious states, which might prove distracting in our ability to function proficiently within this physical reality. Hence, when our brains are in their normal functioning state, they might serve to normally prohibit such experiences like mystical experiences, near-death experiences, savant syndrome, hyperthymesia, experiences induced by psychedelic drugs, and so on and so forth. If this is correct, then such experiences are not a product of a disorganised, dysfunctional brain. Rather they are realities which exist out there that we are allowed a partial glimpse of due to our impaired ability of the brain to act as an effective “filter”.

3. Does the soul or self violate physical laws?

Finally, the charge that a soul or self would 'violate well-established physical laws by interacting with the brain', is to make precisely the same mistake as Sean Carroll does in this article. I explain why he is wrong here. It is also to put the horse before the cart. Physical laws are supposed to describe reality, not dictate to reality what can or cannot exist.  

If we have a phenomenon that has been universally reported, we cannot assert it doesn't exist because it doesn't fit in with some pre-defined laws. Rather, a more encompassing theory needs to be advanced. A new theory, which while still explaining existing phenomena, is able to also accommodate this "anomalous" phenomenon.

In this context, I submit that we can be completely certain of the existence of at least one "anomalous" phenomenon, and that is our own consciousness. Moreover, I maintain that consciousness is necessarily causally efficacious as I argue here, and cannot be reduced to any physical processes as I argue in part 4 of my Science, the Afterlife, and the Intelligentsia. So a new more encompassing theory needs to be proposed. No flavour of reductive materialism accommodates these facts, although possibly some other mind-body position, but one that still holds the brains elicits/causes the mind, might. But what
 is certain is that current physical laws wholly leave out even our normal everyday embodied consciousness in their description of reality. It follows they cannot, therefore, be invoked to rule out consciousness surviving the demise of our bodies.