A Physicalist Theory of Mind

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A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Wayfarer » Mon Apr 14, 2014 5:17 am

Here's a perfect statement of materialism. There's an article in this week's New Scientist by Max Tegmark (The Fourth State of Matter) purporting to 'explain' the nature of consciousness.

It starts with this observation:
Different people mean different things by 'consciousness', including awareness of environment or self. I am asking a more basic question of why you experience anything at all. ...

A traditional answer to this problem is dualism - that living entities differ from inanimate ones because they contain some non-physical element such as an 'anima' or 'soul'. Support for dualism amongst scientists has gradually dwindled. To understand why, consider that your body is made up of about 10^29 quarks and electrons, which as far as we can tell move according to simple physical laws...
That is a strange thing to say, because the laws which govern the movement of sub-atomic particles are far from simple. Unlike Newton's laws, which are simple, and which govern the movement of larger objects, the 'laws' of the sub-atomic realm, such as Schrodinger's Wave Equation, are probabalistic, that is, they are not strictly predictive. There are many profound philosophical and conceptual problems associated with the implications of such laws, such as the 'entanglement' between remote 'particles' (Einstein's 'spooky action at a distance') and even the basic question as to whether such particles really exist in the same way that common objects of perception do. Some of these problems have lead to speculative ideas such as the so-called Everett many-worlds theory, which posits an infinite number of parallel dimensions in which infinite replicas of ourselves participate in infinite variations of our activities. (Indeed Tegmark himself is a noted proponent of 'multiple universes' and 'many worlds' ideas.)

Matter itself is currently described in terms of 'the standard model' of particle physics, which is far from simple, and which, besides, is under constant review and may indeed be modified or abandoned altogether in future. RIght now, the precise composition of matter is the reason for the construction of the largest and most complex apparatus in the history of the world - the Large Hadron Collider - but there are still many enormous gaps in the account, and leading physicsts are muttering that 'a bigger one is needed' ('Larger Hadron Collider' :? )

Many of these things are understood very well by physicists in a practical sense, but their philosophical implications - which, one might think, are significant in regards to the question at hand - are still a source of intense controversy and speculation.

Moving on:
Imagine a future technology which tracks all of your particles: if they were found to obey the laws of physics exactly ( :roll: ) then your purported 'soul' is having no effect on your particles. ...

..If your particles were instead found not to obey the known laws of physics because they were being pushed around by your soul then we could treat the soul as just another physical entity able to exert forces on particles.
This just seems grotesquely mistaken to me. As mentioned above, your 'particles' - if indeed they are 'particles' - are not predictable in the first place. But, more to the point, it seems to make the assumption that an array of particles can form anything whatever - whether it be a living organism, or the information on a hard drive for that matter - and that this is something that physics, in principle, understands.

But how can that be? As I noted above, physics doesn't actually fully describe even matter at this point (let's not even mention the Dark Matter problem.)

But there is something else radically the matter with this idea, which I would like to try and put my finger on. Why would 'the soul' or 'the mind' be understood as being on the same level as the so-called 'particles' which are 'pushed around'? So say that 'the soul' causes things to move, in the mechanical sense, is implicitly to claim that it is simply another example of the kinds of things that atoms are: that it is physical.

Consider the arrangement of letters that constitute 'a book'. Certainly if you know the position and sequence of all the letters in that book, then you can re-constitute it - computers do that every day. But the question will remain, where does the story come from? Why is it meaningful? What makes it a good book? How come it contains information? And is that information identical with the letters that comprise it?

And surely these questions are not something that, for the sake of analogy, a typesetter or layout artist is equipped to answer.

What makes a story? Why is something meaningful? Surely that is at least as important in the understanding of the human mind, as understanding the precise location and vector of 10^29 'particles', even if it could be done, which is still far from clear.

And questions of that nature are on a completely different level to anything that Max Tegmark, or any other physicist, is qualified to answer, as far as I can see.
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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Andrew108 » Mon Apr 14, 2014 5:33 am

Just a quick reply. Science isn't finished. There are still many things to find out. The theories that scientists have need to be proven. The data needs to match the theory. I know you know all this but It's important to make a distinction between scientific fact and scientific theorizing. Scientific fact, in which Newton's laws are still incredibly relevant, is what really drives science. The implications of Newton's laws for Buddhist thinking are profound - never mind Einstein's.
The Blessed One said:

"What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, 'Repudiating this All, I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range." Sabba Sutta.

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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Wayfarer » Mon Apr 14, 2014 5:39 am

I know that science 'isn't finished', but many people somehow feel confident enough to say that it has solved the question of the identity of human nature in principle - which I disagree with.

So, how are the implications of Newton's laws profound 'for Buddhist thinking'?
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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Wayfarer » Mon Apr 14, 2014 7:00 am

Here is one of the better essays on Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason Martin J. Voerhoeven, Dharma Realm Buddhist University.
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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by oushi » Mon Apr 14, 2014 8:02 am

"Soul", or should we say volition, is like gravity. It even has the same feature of attraction. But is gravity physical?
World manifests as a result of many, overlapping dimensions. Physicality is just a feature of one of those dimensions.
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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by dude » Mon Apr 14, 2014 8:06 am

of course gravity is physical.
physicality is material, and mind is spiritual.

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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Grigoris » Mon Apr 14, 2014 8:58 am

dude wrote:of course gravity is physical.
physicality is material, and mind is spiritual.
Gravity is not physical, it's not like a hand that grabs you by the legs and holds you down or nails that pin your feet to the ground. It is caused by physical phenomena, mass, and it's effect is physical, but as a force it is not physical.
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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Kaccāni » Mon Apr 14, 2014 9:07 am

First of all, thanks for this thread, so that we can approach what Buddhism points to from the "other" side which we were born in. In my opinion the purpose of any theory to begin with.
jeeprs wrote: That is a strange thing to say, because the laws which govern the movement of sub-atomic particles are far from simple.
Well. There's two sides to that.

As basic building blocks of atoms quarks are in fact simple, since their behavior can be described (at least as far as the emerging effects are concerned). One could now argue that they again emerge from underlying effects (since the nature as a whole is complex). But you do not really need to argue about that to make your point, because:

Even if we assume those particles are really "simple", their complex (!) combination, which recurses to atom, to molecule, enzyme, organelle, DNA, cell, tissue, functional unit, organ, and finally organism does contain complexity.

And even if we say that organism can be described, it contains a neural network. In that neural network there are pulsed currents. Now. The nature of this neural network again is ... complex (recurrent). It even contains plasticity in its recurrence (and that is the interesting part when it comes to self-wareness). The plasticity of this neural network gives way to that which can be changed when the mind interfaces with the body.

The mind only resides as these electrical fields and currents. It is pure energy. An expression of energies in our universe, that can express in its complexity because the brain and the connected sense organs are made as they are. In this mind there is not only basic "observation", but there's recurrence. So an effect within the mind can become input to another effect. All effects of the mind (thoughts) also express themselves as observations, as the output of the sense organs do. And within that structure observation can observe itself. By practice, that mind-organ can be trained, so that the underlying structures are adjusted to make it easier to become aware of the workings of the mind itself. Like learning a new skill. In this case the skill is observation of inner workings. Methods include Meditation, Pratyahara, Recitation of Mantras, etc.

Now there are two interesting parts in that, in my opinion. The mind, in principle, does not necessarily need to live in dependence to all the body. I suppose it could exist dependent on abstracting sensory organs and a recurrent network that connects them, where the electrical complexity of "mind" can arise within. The body then is not much more than a vehicle to move. Of course, to learn that what a human being can learn, the recursive feedback from motion to sensory input is necessary (arising from the nervous system), and in human beings the body and the brain run on the same fuel (provided by the circulatory system).

So in trying to reduce stuff I ask myself: could there be consciousness without the part of the body below the head? Then the answer is basically yes. Could there be consciousness without a brain? Then the answer is: Not as we experience it. The way we experience our consciousness is that what expresses when it arises dependently with the brain. Could there be another structure that gives rise to consciousness? Of course. I would suggest the prerequisites are plasticity, high level of interconnectedness (which gives way to recursions) so the electrical currents can arise simultaneously (so not only pulsed currents, but also frequencies, effects upon those currents emerge). But the environment that provides exactly that in our universe are living beings.

Now that's an observation from "outside". You could therefore consider it materialist. A different question arises when we ask the question "what can we say for sure"? Then we need to change perspective. Since whatever we do finds its basis within those electrical fields and currents. If we look from their inside, we do not know anything about matter. From the inside we see a sensation through our eyes which becomes aware as form, if our attention travels towards the observer we notice a couple of thought processes that are connected with, and in the end there comes an experience we are "beyond thought", where the mind can be observed as a thinking organ that bubbles up thoughts that can be identified with (or not).

Now looking at the thing as a whole, the question arises whether there can be knowledge of the world without consciousness. Obviously it can not, since there was nobody who could experience it nor talk about it. At the same time consciousness must be an effect that mutually arises from the way the universe is. It just arises at certain, complex parts of it. The inner complexity of a human being is (as we know it) higher than the one you'd get if you fill the universe with singular blocks of the size of human beings. This complexity is emerging along with all the other effects of the universe. So it is not only "in mutual balance" with it, but it is two sides of the same. This "inside view" is what we experience when we make our mind as an object of observation. Science is what we get when we make the penomena that our sense organs sense as the object of observation. But the only absolute thing we can say about it is "there is consciousness". All other things are observations that arise within consciousness. Existence beyond consciousness is mere speculation. Since we can talk about these phenomena consciousness seems to interact with consciousness. So if something, the universe must arise as some kind of Multi-Consciousness-Shared-Hallucination. Or there is only one consciousness, that seems to express in different parts of the universe, when we observe it. That would make the universe one being that appears to communicate with itself at certain places.

Will we ever be able to say it is not so? I doubt that. Since any attempt at an explanation is an effect that arises within consciousness.

Is that important for practical purposes? Not for ending suffering. To end suffering you only need to experience what you can change and what you cannot change. If you can influence the inner workings of the mind, certain phenomena will no longer arise, because the mind does not give way to them. Suffering is one effect that is mind-born (In principle, everything is, since everything is perceived, even your body.) So does something cease to exist when one person does no longer take notice of it? No. But does something cease to exist when no consciousness no longer takes any notice of it? Who could tell?

When consciousness mutually arises with the world of things, then the conclusion is, when there is no consciousness of it anymore, then it is not there, or as long as it is there, there will be consciousness of it. If you then think about science, you could postulate another thing: As long as science keeps looking, it will find. Because finding arises from looking. And if you scale down, there will be another. Will there be an end? Can be doubted. When looking into details you will also approach infinity. As you are an expression of the looking, the finding is an expression of you. How we judge what we perceive is a model made up in our mind. If that is the scientific syllabus, myth, religion, they all exist next to each other. They may be more or less appropriate when it comes to obtain a certain purpose.

But as explanation of that what is they're all just theories that express in consciousness. And the only thing we can truly say is, there is an experience that we are.

Now that was a long span of thinking aloud. My mind bubbles such, particularly in the time before noon ...
Last edited by Kaccāni on Mon Apr 14, 2014 9:38 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Huseng » Mon Apr 14, 2014 9:12 am

Support for dualism amongst scientists has gradually dwindled. To understand why, consider that your body is made up of about 10^29 quarks and electrons, which as far as we can tell move according to simple physical laws...
How does such a model account for immaterial albeit causally efficacious forces like language?

This is one problem I find with the modern materialist approach: there is no room for mind and soul, yet clearly we can observe immaterial forces at work in reality. Language is immaterial, yet the right or wrong words can trigger very discernible physical reactions. It does not even have to be voiced. A written message saying "I love you" or "I'll kill you" posted on your door might trigger an elevated heart rate.

The events on the mental realm can be expressed in physical reality through human (and animal?) agents. That doesn't mean they don't exist. Physically they might not, but events on one 'plane' can and do influence things on another plane.

It seems like these scientists in question are more interested in promoting their arbitrary belief that only matter exists when it can be demonstrated there is more to reality than physical processes.

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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Wayfarer » Mon Apr 14, 2014 12:43 pm

Thanks, Gwenn Dana, an interesting essay.

Needless to say Ven. Indrajala, I am in complete agreement. I would sometimes try and make a similar point on Philosophy Forum, but it seemed lost on those for whom it was intended.

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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Huseng » Mon Apr 14, 2014 1:07 pm

jeeprs wrote: Needless to say Ven. Indrajala, I am in complete agreement. I would sometimes try and make a similar point on Philosophy Forum, but it seemed lost on those for whom it was intended.
Yes, I've had the same experience. Materialism runs deep in the English speaking world at least. This isn't necessarily so with other cultures however (especially, say, Taiwan or Singapore where amongst Chinese people mysticism of all kinds is perfectly normal and even appreciated if not encouraged).

The reality is that in Europe the reality wars of the 19th century were ultimately won by the materialists, logical positivists and so forth. The prevailing physicalist cosmology we're educated with seems so normal while anything else so alien. Try having a diagram of the cosmos with language and soul included, and you'll be mocked, whereas not so long ago this was perfectly acceptable.

On that note, though, scientific development on the materialist model is reaching its financial limits. The cost of new discoveries are increasingly expensive to the point it costs billions upon billions to discover new things which may hold no practical application. I think in due time there might be reconsideration of realms we neglected for so long. To a certain extent this can also be done scientifically, especially with respect to the role and causal power of language in reality.

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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Andrew108 » Mon Apr 14, 2014 3:47 pm

jeeprs wrote:I know that science 'isn't finished', but many people somehow feel confident enough to say that it has solved the question of the identity of human nature in principle - which I disagree with.

So, how are the implications of Newton's laws profound 'for Buddhist thinking'?
Implications are that objects obey laws and that causality is impersonal. That unseen forces do not need either a supernatural explanation nor are they transcendent aspects of subjectivity.
The Blessed One said:

"What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, 'Repudiating this All, I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range." Sabba Sutta.

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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Andrew108 » Mon Apr 14, 2014 4:09 pm

Indrajala wrote:How does such a model account for immaterial albeit causally efficacious forces like language?
There are aspects to our world that are immaterial. Scientists don't discount them. They are included. Language as a form of communication is well-researched.
Indrajala wrote:This is one problem I find with the modern materialist approach: there is no room for mind and soul, yet clearly we can observe immaterial forces at work in reality. Language is immaterial, yet the right or wrong words can trigger very discernible physical reactions. It does not even have to be voiced. A written message saying "I love you" or "I'll kill you" posted on your door might trigger an elevated heart rate.
The truths that science uncovers are relevant for everyone. They are the same for everyone. Mind and soul are so subjective that science can't say anything about them except that it is impossible that mind and soul occupy a separate layer of reality that is not covered by the laws of physics. But since science can't prove mind and soul (whereas it can prove cognition) that doesn't stop you from believing in mind and soul. Just that your belief will not necessarily be the same as another persons' belief. You chose to make your beliefs meaningful, but you can't say that you hold a truth.

If Buddhism connects with science, then the truths that Buddhism uncovers will be truths that everyone can accept. This is the important point.
The Blessed One said:

"What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, 'Repudiating this All, I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range." Sabba Sutta.

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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Huseng » Mon Apr 14, 2014 5:25 pm

Andrew108 wrote: There are aspects to our world that are immaterial. Scientists don't discount them. They are included. Language as a form of communication is well-researched.
As a form of communication it is well-researched, but language is not included in any more mainstream ontology or model of physics, is it?

You seem to be missing my point: the physical world is supposed to be a closed system, yet clearly immaterial forces have causal power with in it, which logically means there are other forces at work shaping the world aside from quarks and electron for example.

Mind and soul are so subjective that science can't say anything about them except that it is impossible that mind and soul occupy a separate layer of reality that is not covered by the laws of physics.
It doesn't work like that in practice though, just like how science isn't inherently materialist, yet in practice it generally is (look at what happened to Rupert Sheldrake: he was called a heretic by the establishment). Science today generally would believe that since a soul cannot be quantified or objectively observed, it must not exist, and has no place in a physicalist ontology. This is important to us because such a model not only empowers certain people above others (physicists above philosophers) and because it is what is likely to be taught in school and seem normal to people.

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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by DGA » Mon Apr 14, 2014 5:27 pm

Andrew108 wrote:
Indrajala wrote:How does such a model account for immaterial albeit causally efficacious forces like language?
There are aspects to our world that are immaterial. Scientists don't discount them. They are included. Language as a form of communication is well-researched.
language is not studied as immaterial, however. Language is studied as and through concrete artifacts such as speech acts, phonemes, &c through which "deep structures" which may or may not be material (can you make sense of Chomsky's "cartesianism?") are sometimes claimed to be discernable.

Anyway insofar as language is embodied in soundwaves or texts, it is as material as anything else. Linguistics, insofar as it is a science, is concerned with the material phenomenon known as language.

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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by DGA » Mon Apr 14, 2014 5:29 pm

Indrajala wrote:You seem to be missing my point: the physical world is supposed to be a closed system, yet clearly immaterial forces have causal power with in it
I would like to know if there is any discipline in which both these claims are affirmed: 1. that the world is a closed (material) system and that 2. forces that are immaterial have causal power to that system

failing such a consensus, can anyone identify a significant scientist in any discipline at present who would affirm both claims?

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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by DGA » Mon Apr 14, 2014 5:34 pm

I'm rereading the OP and trying to understand how this new theory overcomes the obvious objections to Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained from twenty years ago. I remember that I was not the only one who thought Dennett's argument was preposterously reductive, and that the best-warranted evidence in support of his claims is not yet available, leading him essentially to write a series of bounced checks with each claim he makes. Am I reading this new work reductively, or does it seem that it represents the same old wine in newly-labelled bottles?

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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Huseng » Mon Apr 14, 2014 5:45 pm

Jikan wrote: I would like to know if there is any discipline in which both these claims are affirmed: 1. that the world is a closed (material) system and that 2. forces that are immaterial have causal power to that system
I think you'll find most contemporary mainstream disciplines would defer to physicalist reductionism as anything else is heretical. So, in the case of language, it is just complex bio-chemical reactions in the brain which can be boiled down to strictly physical processes. The consciousness of language is but an epiphenomenon of those processes and not causally powerful.

Rupert Sheldrake with his ideas of morphic resonance and memories being stored outside the brain is one noteworthy scientist working outside the mainstream field. I somehow don't think he believes the world is a closed material system however.

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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Huseng » Mon Apr 14, 2014 5:54 pm

Jikan wrote: Anyway insofar as language is embodied in soundwaves or texts, it is as material as anything else. Linguistics, insofar as it is a science, is concerned with the material phenomenon known as language.
Yes and no. One aspect of language is physical, though it doesn't have to be. You can visualize symbols or hear words in dreams for example that initiate physical processes in your body. For lack of a better example, "dirty words" heard in a dream (which are not connected to any soundwaves) could initiate an erection or some other sort of bodily excitement. This is but one example of immaterial forces affecting material ones. That connection is not really recognized in mainstream schools of thought today, though in the past, both east and west, it was.

The immaterial side to language is perhaps too subjective to really study scientifically. Though nevertheless it would be foolish to suggest just because you cannot scientifically study the immaterial side of language it must not exist and/or possess causal power.

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Re: A Physicalist Theory of Mind

Post by Andrew108 » Mon Apr 14, 2014 6:58 pm

Indrajala wrote:As a form of communication it is well-researched, but language is not included in any more mainstream ontology or model of physics, is it?
Why should it be?
Indrajala wrote:You seem to be missing my point: the physical world is supposed to be a closed system, yet clearly immaterial forces have causal power with in it, which logically means there are other forces at work shaping the world aside from quarks and electron for example.
I guess we need to define immaterial. I would define immaterial as either something that does not have mass or something that is purely information. Sound would be an example of something that is purely information - that is not made of matter.
Indrajala wrote:It doesn't work like that in practice though, just like how science isn't inherently materialist, yet in practice it generally is (look at what happened to Rupert Sheldrake: he was called a heretic by the establishment). Science today generally would believe that since a soul cannot be quantified or objectively observed, it must not exist, and has no place in a physicalist ontology. This is important to us because such a model not only empowers certain people above others (physicists above philosophers) and because it is what is likely to be taught in school and seem normal to people.
Well science just keeps uncovering truths that are for everyone. You needn't believe in science (or the moon landings) but still these truths are relevant. Even if they are not relevant they are applicable. You seem to be blaming science for not having all the answers. But why should it? It is not a religion and it is not all inclusive. What religion gives you is a moral map. That is incredibly useful. Some people need them. Some religions also help alleviate mental anguish. Although religion can be divisive and the cause of more mental anguish. One would hope that Buddhists don't take on divisive beliefs.
The Blessed One said:

"What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, 'Repudiating this All, I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range." Sabba Sutta.

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