© Fernando Caracena, 2017
Physics and biology furnish a new perspective, from which to re-examine the age old problem of the mind body connection in philosophy. Offered here are a few insights on the mind body connection without ultimate answers, which may forever elude explanation in terms of physical cause and effect.
The connection between the mind and the body is a key question.
The mind-body connection is pivotal idea, not only in philosophy, but in many other areas of human thought, and it connects with the ideas of holism and reductionism in interesting ways.
The philosophies of the mind body connection have various implications, not only in people's personal lives, but also in courts of law. A reductionist philosophy does not allow for human beings to have a free will, consciousness being seen as a passive observer riding on top of a set of complex of electro-chemical processes, much as foam rides on top of a breaking wave. In contrast, holistic philosophy accepts the mind as a free causal agent that can not only act, but can act back on the environment to modify physical circumstances. Holistic philosophy therefore tends to judge a person to be morally responsible for personal actions. Holistic philosophy also is conducive to greater accomplishment, because someone operating under that philosophy believes that personal performance can be improved by analysis and optimization of personal actions.
Mortality or immortality?
A reductionist philosophy leads to the interpretation of the mind as an epiphenomenon, a passive element, not real in itself. If the mind is nothing but the sum total of electro-chemical processes in the physical mechanism of the brain, then death destroys the mind; breaks the continuity of human existence; and brings on complete oblivion. In contrast, a holistic approach makes several other interpretations possible,.
If the mind is seen as having a separate existence in its own right, as in the philosophy of René Descartes, called Dualism, then the death of the physical body is not necessarily seen as causing the death and dissipation of the associated mind. Even if mental processes are somehow attached to those of the physical brain, their detachment from those of the body by death does not necessarily imply the death of the mind. It simply means that one activity in the universe becomes separated from the other. In that case, death of the body would simply disconnect and shift our sensation of the physical world from our events-body-centred, mental awareness to a differently based awareness. In that case, the body would have functioned more as an avatar than as fundamental basis for our being aware. However, it is difficult to imagine a conscious existence without that consciousness being localized in some kind of body.
In the past, people commonly believed in a God who intervened actively in the operations of the physical world. Some may have believed it possible that the mind was an epiphenomenon dependent on physical processes, which although annihilated by death, was nevertheless saved from mortality by the grace of an immortal God, who remembered them and recreated them anew in the flesh from their physical remains. In their minds, God would fill in the gap of the discontinuity of their existence created by death, by reincarnating all people who had lived and died. This is still the view held by some fundamentalists, which keeps morticians in business. As a child, I was very distressed and disgusted at the thought of dead, half rotted corpses, rising zombie-like out of their graves on some day of judgement.
Today however, people are not satisfied with explanations that invoke Divine intervention to explain every discontinuity in a rational explanation. In the scientific age of today, people want explanations that involve mechanisms and causal links that can be observed and tested, at least in principle. Indeed, atheists reject all explanations of causality involving God, because they involve what they consider unobservable. In modern times, explanations that rely on the agency of God for their operation, are not accepted in scientific discussion. But, I think that it will not always be so.
The major problem with a scientific approach to transcendental questions is that they cannot be answered by any reasoning based on observable laws of nature, by their very definition. Can scientists add anything intelligent to such discussions? So why bother to speak of such questions? However, scientists are human beings, who have a type of disciplined approach to study natural phenomena. Further, their habit is not to accept answers to fundamental questions based on some kind of authority, except the authority of experimental and theoretical evidence. Further, as human beings, and as a practical necessity, we constantly strive to mesh what we know with a larger world view.
In philosophy, the mind-body problem is connected with the question of "what is consciousness?" In physics this is important question, which physicists prefer to ignore, but which like an elephant in a living room, they cannot easily ignore because it is a principal component of quantum theory . In quantum theory, the conscious observer is invoked as a necessary component of the theory. The nature of the observer is not well defined in quantum theory and is subject to much debate, which has continued with the introduction of this concept by the Copenhagen Interpretation up to the present. Today, the role of the conscious observer in quantum theory is still much debated. Opinions among physicists range from observations being essential to the formation of reality, to the idea that there is an underlying reality that stands apart from our perceptions of it.
Some quantum theorists have gone so far as to suggest that reality derives its existence from the conscious observer. This was a pill hard for Einstein to swallow. He believed that there was an objective reality that existed independently of the human observer. As a witty counter argument to the ideas of quantum theorists he said “I like to think that the moon is there even if I am not looking at it”. At several physics conferences Einstein carried on a vigorous debate with Niels Bohr over the bizarre implications of quantum theory. Over the question of the essential necessity of observation to project reality out of the realm of probability amplitudes, he believed the theory had to be incomplete, because it did not feature an objective reality.
Some modern theoretical developments regarding black hole physics suggest that the three dimensional universe is not what it seems to be, but that it is rather a two dimensional hologram, from which the human mind decodes the rich three dimensional tapestry of our experience. This is known as the holographic principle, which is explained in the hyper-reference as follows:
The holographic principle states that the entropy of ordinary mass (not just black holes) is also proportional to surface area and not volume; that volume itself is illusory and the universe is really a hologram which is isomorphic to the information "inscribed" on the surface of its boundary.
Incidentally, all these ideas and principles mention above are not just talk. They are based on mathematical theory and actual observations, the logic of which lead to these seemingly bizarre conclusions.
The logic of physics then, brings hard headed realists, who base their reasoning on mathematical logic and observations, verifiable by any suitably equipped and skilled experimentalist, into accepting the human mind as being the source of our perception of a physical reality that is different from what it seems to be. This conclusion is exactly opposite to one that would be drawn from a reductionist point of view. The irony is that hard logic and careful, scientific observation drags realists into the camp of mystics, into an area that materialists would call "Wu Wu" thinking. I would say that it is "Wu Wei" rather than "Wu-Tang."
Since consciousness is a basic property of the human mind, and it is consciousness that makes possible the observer of quantum theory, the theory invokes the mysterious human mind as an important component of reality. Here, a discussion of the essential nature of the observer in quantum theory, would scatter our thoughts too far off from the the mind-body problem. For this reason, the question of the role of the human observer in physics is left for a future blog entry. Nevertheless, the mounting success of quantum theory, which has weird philosophical implications, points to the necessity of clarifying certain crucial concepts such as, mind, consciousness and the mind-body problem.
A serious criticism that could be levelled at the importance of the role of the observer in quantum theory is that it is not consistent with the universe's having existed long before humans were here to observe it. So how could have the universe have existed, if its own origin depended on the human observer? A plausible theoretical answer to this question could be that the laws of physics, other than thermodynamics, are not dependant on the direction of the progress of time. The fundamental laws of physics operate both, toward the future, and toward the past. Replacing "t" in the fundamental equations of physics everywhere by "-t" gives exactly the same set of equations. Time in this case, as it enters the fundamental equations of physics, is different than the ordinary time that we are used to. (See a previous blog series, "Time's Dual Nature Part 1 and Part 2") Since the fundamental laws of physics portray the propagation of causality, both backward, and forward in time, our observation of the universe now, could establish the reality of the Big Bang in the past, which at the moment of creation was being condition by its future observation by sentient beings. Note that argument would explain the anthropic principle. A universe that does not produce the future evolution of sentient beings, will not come into existence, because it can never be observed, therefore, its creation cannot become a reality.
Note that this type of thinking is not invented in these blogs, but that it is a way of thinking that exists among top physicists. Wheeler and Feynman (1945) published a paper that used waves propagating backward in time as well as those propagating forward in time to account for radiation resistance produced on an accelerated electric charge.
The theoretical constraints that have to be satisfied here are: (1) that electromagnetic waves are emitted whenever a charge is accelerated; (2) a period of time elapses between the time of emission of a wave at t1, and when it is absorbed at a later time, t2, in a way consistent with a signal travelling at the speed of light, c, the distance between the radiator and absorber; (3) the whole process must be symmetric in time; (4) but must also include the radiation effects of the absorbing charge, which is accelerated in absorbing the electromagnetic wave, emitted earlier, in a way that conserves energy and momentum. But how could that happen? Wheeler and Feynman found a clever way to handle these fundamental constraints:
At a time t1, the first charge accelerating radiates a retarded wave from past into the future travelling at the speed of light, c. At a later time t2 , that wave is absorbed by a second charge, in the process of which it is also accelerated, but now it radiates a wave travelling at c into the past. That second wave arrives in the past, just as the first charge is beginning to be accelerated, just in time to produce the radiation drag.
Here is what Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman had to say about his use of forward and advanced potentials in explaining radiation drag on and accelerated charge in electrodynamics:
I was enough of a physicist at that time not to say, "Oh, no, how could that be?" For today all physicists know from studying Einstein and Bohr, that sometimes an idea which looks completely paradoxical at first, if analyzed to completion in all detail and in experimental situations, may, in fact, not be paradoxical. So, it did not bother me any more than it bothered Professor Wheeler to use advance waves for the back reaction - a solution of Maxwell's equations, which previously had not been physically used.
If the mind is seriously considered a key player in the nature of reality, then humans could be viewed as co-creators of that reality. In that case ultimate reality would exist as an infinity of ideal forms, or potentials, which become manifest by their being observed by sentient beings. The flux of infinite potentials could be pictured as a preceding from an infinite God, who would be that ultimate reality.
A previous blog, Nature's Ultimate Joke, stated:
The reason that humans can soar into [the transcendental realm] is because the mind also extends into and is a part of this ... The ultimate irony is that the development of physics supports the truth of the above. Quantum Physics was made possible by recognising the necessity of human consciousness in projecting events in space and time out of the elementary potentials that exist in our world as wavelike propagations. Without the presence of human consciousness nothing really happens on the level of elementary particles. And human consciousness itself relies on the action of synapses that tap into the quantum level. Historically, the role of human consciousness has been to project possibilities perceptible only on the level of human thought into the physical world, and thereby make human life much easier. Quantum physics suggests that there is a nebulous realm of possibilities that exist in a realm beyond the physical world but which can be manifest on the physical world. This makes invention and human material progress possible.
The Quantum Theory presents a philosophical conundrum, a different view of the world, in which the mind itself plays an essential role. In an attempt to circumvent the epistemological problems presented by the theory, and in attempting to come up with a theory of a real world interpretation Hugh Everett, a student of John Archibald Wheeler, came up with a many worlds interpretation that is just as troubling and baffling as the quantum theory itself was to being with.
At the turn of the 19th to 20th Century, reductionism had almost reached its peak. Following its approach, physicists were able to developed an atomic and molecular theory that explained a lot of the nature of matter, as well as its chemical properties. For the moment, Cartesian Dualism lost a lot of its appeal. The mind had to be a physically based epiphenomenon, and the pseudo science of phrenology developed that thought that the mind could be studied from an analysis of the physical structure of the head (Fig. 1). At that point, few people would accept a dualistic theory of the mind, as a non-physical entity that somehow controls the neural processes of the brain.
Why is the mind not just a ghost?
There is a clever little ditty that runs as follows:
What is mind? Not matter. What is matter? Never mind.
I searched for, and found this quote, at a skeptic's site which tries to debunk ideas connected with the supernatural, in favor of more physically based explanations.
A critic of Cartesian Dualism would ask,
How can that be? How can what is not material move matter? The Cartesian idea of a mind is that it is like a ghost, a hallucination, or at best, a passive observer.
This is the same type of criticism that atheists level at the concept of God as a spirit, whom they would call an "imaginary friend" and irrelevant to reality. Is the mind a higher activity that directs the motions of the body, or is it an epiphenomenon, a passive observer riding like foam on a wave of physical determinism? Is then the observer of quantum mechanics a fiction?
Perhaps the observer of quantum theory is not passive at all, but on the contrary, co-creative. One can form a logical philosophical hypothesis that posits God as the source of infinite possibilities (or potentials), from which man, as a co-creator, is able to manifest a finite subset into objective reality through his own action.
To some people, the word 'imaginary' means not real. But think about it, are not ideas of our imagination real. They may seem insubstantial. but they can become manifest. What goes on in the mind harkens back to Platonic forms that exist at deeper level of reality, the shadow of which are the objects we perceive in the physical world. (See the blog series "Substance and Form–Philosophy and Physics")
Does Space represent the Presence of God?
In his scientific writings, Newton suggested that space was the Sensorium of God. An explanation of what he meant by the term "Sensorium of God" is featured in an online article by Christopher Insole called,"Kant’s Transcendental Idealism and Newton’s Divine Sensorium", part of of which is quote below:
"Kant’s Transcendental Idealism and Newton’s Divine Sensorium1 When Kant read Newton (and Clarke), so I will argue, the following conceptual space could have been opened up for him: space is neither a substance nor an accident, but is the way in which objects are present to the (divine) mind. Space is the divinesensorium, the means by which God is present to the creation. Space is a consequence of the existence of (divine) mind, and that objects have a spatial form occurs insofar as objects are dependent upon and known by (divine) mind."
This idea is similar to the Ein Sof of Kabbalah that pictures the Divine presence in its infinite self as nothingness, meaning that we cannot have any perceptual purchase on the one truly infinite God, because we can perceive only what has limits, and God does not have any limits.
What becomes manifest to us, is what our senses can detect, which in the physical world are material objects. Our minds however, not being on the level of matter, can also perceive causes, from which matter issues as effects. What is perhaps the same thing, the mind perceives potentials and becomes aware of their manifestation in the physical world through its own connection with the physical senses. This kind of thinking, described by Emanuel Swedenborg, places the human mind in a truly unique and marvellous position. We delve further into these ideas in discussing the discrete levels of existence described by Emanuel Swedenborg.
Swedenborg's View of Creation
It is almost impossible to describe Swedenborg's ideas in a few words. His scientific, philosophical and theological writing is vast and deep. Having an estimated IQ of over 200, he is considered to have been one of the uber-geniuses of history by psychologists. His intellectual output in times of quill and paper is awe inspiring. His mind was vast, and he saw what most men cannot, and few of the brightest of our race get only the briefest glimpse of.
Philosophers may classify Swedenborg's ideas about the nature of the mind as Cartesian dualism, which is described as follows:
"Substance dualism is a type of dualism most famously defended by René Descartes, which states that there are two fundamental kinds of substance: mental and material. According to his philosophy, which is specifically called Cartesian dualism, the mental does not have extension in space, and the material cannot think. Substance dualism is important historically for having given rise to much thought regarding the famous mind–body problem. Substance dualism is a philosophical position compatible with most theologies which claim that immortal souls occupy an independent "realm" of existence distinct from that of the physical world."
Although Swedenborg's ideas about the mind and the body resemble Cartesian Dualism, they are rather more involved than that.
A previous blog, "Holistic vs Redutionist Ideas in Physics", states:
Emmanuel Swedenborg [Wikipedia] (1688 – 1772) gave us a picture of reality consisting of an internal world of causes and an external world of effects. The spiritual world is the origin of human consciousness, which affects us only subconsciously while we are in the natural world; and the natural world, is the world of nature that we perceive consciously with our senses. According to Swedenborg, we are basically spirits who have been tricked into looking at reality through our physical senses.
Swedenborg's description of the Cosmos is theistic—a dual creation by God through an internal world of causes and an external world of effects. The spiritual world is the world of causes, which is within the external, physical world of effects. The spiritual world could be called the world of potentials in modern terminology; the Physical World, the world of effects, which are manifestations of a subset of these causes. Swedenborg speaks of their being no ratio between the two worlds, which to me suggests something of the notion of a mathematical infinity. From God come forth an infinity of potentials, which ultimately manifest as material effects. Further, the ultimate manifestation becomes the vessel that supports intermediate structures in the World of Spirits. Swedenborg writes that God creates Spiritual Objects as intermediates between the two extremes, himself as the causative source and their physical manifestations as effects.
The mind body connection is a question that has great importance in human life. Many practical steps that our society takes are based on how it views that connection.
On the one hand, if the human mind and awareness are simply passive elements that ride on the back of a deterministic universe, then we cannot blame anybody for the bad things that they do, nor can we give them credit for doing any good. Everything just happens, and we are passive observers. On the other hand, if the human mind is an active agent that inputs its decisions into physical actions, of which it is the author, then it can be assigned blame or credit. Man is a moral agent who is responsible for all his actions.
The second alternative, stated above, is the interpretation of jurisprudence. The intention of the plaintiff is weighed in the process of judging his actions. The court of law assumes that the mind is an active agent.
In Part 2 of this series, we explore some of the physical connections between mind and matter.
Discrete levels of existence