Minding Souls

The mind, despite nay-sayers, is real. It isn’t an illusion. Emergent phenomena are often larger than the sum of their parts. One of the problems with the non-physical is that we can’t parse it precisely. “Mind” may be called “soul” may be called “personality” may be called “spirit.” You get the picture. Many scientists would answer “none of the above” to the question of which of these exist. Other scientists, not on the fringe, are beginning to see that the answers aren’t quite so simple. A recent piece in the mainstream Washington Post, dares to say what we all feel. Or at least many of us feel. There are realities that religions have recognized for millennia, that demonstrate the existence of the non-corporeal. “As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession,” an article by Richard Gallagher, is worth reading. Gallagher, with a hat-trick of Ivy League-awarded degrees, believes in demons. They’re rare, of course, he says, but real.

The standard story—in large part correct—is that ancients misdiagnosed epilepsy and some forms of mental illness as demons. Undoubtedly their standard threshold was too low. Occasionally, however, they may have been right. Unlike what we’re sometimes told, the ancients recognized at least some mental illness when they saw it. There were non-functional people then, and while some may have blamed demons, others saw them as people who don’t think like the rest of society. Then there were the possessed. As Gallagher notes, humans with superhuman strength, speaking languages they never learned, and yes, even levitating, have been witnessed by credible viewers. Very rare, yes. But also very real.

Despite the need that many feel for freedom, we are, as a species, fond of laws. We want to know the rules and we’re quick to call out those we catch cheating. We’re so fond of laws that we apply them to nature and claim that natural laws can never be broken. Well, at least not above the quantum level. A friend shared that this concept of applying legal language to nature is a fairly recent development in human thought. The idea of a law, however, requires someone to oversee and enforce it. One of the subtleties here is that any enforcement that takes place requires a measure of value, and value, as much as we all treasure it, simply can’t be quantified. Is gold more valuable than silver? It depends. The value comes in assessing its usefulness. Laws separate good behavior from bad behavior. And, if many credible people are to be believed, the behavior of mind sometimes defies the laws of nature.


Mind the Gap

HistoryOfMindThere’s something on my mind. I guess that’s the normal state of a conscious being. William H. Calvin’s A Brief History of the Mind might clarify that a bit. Although I have trouble accepting Calvin’s belief that mind is the same as brain, he does allow, in this wonderful little book, for a somewhat more expansive view. Subtitled From Apes to Intellect and Beyond, the story is more than just a survey of archaeological finds and their physiological counterparts. This is a story. It is a story of how we developed minds. Calvin approaches the topic with the realization that others will have different stories, and that future discoveries (some of which may have already been made in the decade since the book was written) may change it a bit. The book ranges from the quasi-technical (at least from the perspective of sitting on a bus) to the amusing, but always keeping in sight of the fact that this is of human interest.

Particularly compelling is Calvin’s consideration that we may have, at least from our modern perspective, gotten ahead of ourselves a time or two. In discussing the migration of hominids from Africa, he makes the brilliant point that perhaps we weren’t quite ready for that adjustment at that time. We seem to have perhaps driven other hominids to extinction. Our technology might have been outracing our conceptual knowledge of how to handle it. When he returns to this theme later in the story, the results are even a little frightening. We do sometimes get to the point where we can do things that we shouldn’t do. Before our minds have realized the full implications. Atomic bombs, anyone?

Unlike many scientists who believe in materialism, Calvin does not ridicule religion. He notes that it can be taken too literally, but does not suggest we are fools for believing. In fact, he discusses a couple of sects that have turned dangerous over time. He shows how they acted logically, following their thought process in an orderly, if clearly wrong, direction. Some would use this as a cudgel to bash religion in general. Instead, Calvin seems to suggest that we might learn from all of this. Minds, while impressive, are not perfect. Logic can have its flaws. We can, despite the tragedy, learn valuable things about how the mind works. This is an open-ended story; the future of mind is being constantly disclosed. If there is a future for us, we can perhaps prepare a bit better by understanding what’s on our minds.

Sacred Gaze

SenseofBeingStaredAt Rupert Sheldrake raises the ire of some of his fellow scientists. Science has increasingly allied itself with a strict kind of materialism, although, as Sheldrake repeatedly points out, evidence for such absolute materialism is lacking. This is not to challenge science, but simply to note that we may not yet have all of the data. The Sense of Being Stared At considers possible scientific explanations for unconventional situations we all experience from time to time. Who hasn’t felt eyes on them and turned around to find somebody looking? A number of other “impossible” scenarios also find their way into this intriguing book. Sheldrake suggests that such phenomena can start to be explained scientifically if we allow that the mind is not the same thing as the brain. Sure beats a Christmas party with B. F. Skinner, where every present is inevitable.

Materialism feels threatened when spooky action at a distance occurs. As Sheldrake points out, however, we are willing enough to accept it if an invisible “field,” one that we can’t even feel, is posited. Take magnetism, for example. Few people doubt that magnetism is a real force. We’ve never actually seen it, but its effects are clearly visible. Taking this as a starting point, Sheldrake suggests that various psi phenomena involve such fields. The scientific studies that have been undertaken on many of these “spooky” scenarios show statistically that chance may be safely ruled out. And, if the experience of many ordinary people counts for anything, even our pets and other animals may possess minds.

Ironically, the mind (with its taint of being associated with religious concepts such as the soul) is one of the most contentious phenomena in science. Many materialists deny its existence, suggesting it is merely some epiphenomenon of our brains’ electro-chemical processes. Yet these scientists still, one presumes, insist on being treated with respect and being paid for their work, although these mere trifles are just odds and sods clinging to the edges of a materialistic abyss. To me, work like that of Rupert Sheldrake is crucial for an honest assessment of the evidence. Maybe not everyone accepts that dogs know when their “owners” are coming home, and maybe Sheldrake’s morphic fields have yet to be confirmed, be it is clear, when all the evidence is considered, these phenomena do actually happen on occasion. Instead of simply dismissing something because it shouldn’t be, or can’t be, according to materialism, why do we find accepting the evidence so frightening? Is it perhaps the fear of being watched?

Mind Your Cosmos

MindandCosmosSomething on your mind? How often do we bother to think clearly about our minds? One of the most dispiriting concepts ever invented is the idea that even our minds are merely part of a reductionistic, mechanistic universe. All those beautiful, frightening, sublime, and mundane thoughts are just noise, clutter. An inevitable side-effect of all that electro-chemical activity in the gray matter. Nothing more. It is an idea to which it is very difficult to warm. Philosopher Thomas Nagel, however, doesn’t use a soft approach to the concept of mind in his Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. This is not an easy read, but it rewards the reader well.

Some, I suspect, will accuse Nagel of being a closet creationist, but he addresses that concern up front. Nagel is an atheist, but he recognizes that the creationists have raised some valid points about the explanatory value of a materialistic, reductionistic view of the universe. Nagel, like all careful thinkers, realizes that the fact of evolution is not to be disputed. The mechanism driving mutations, however, is open to some speculation. I’ve read many books that suggest we are but (in a more than angst-ridden Kansas) dust in the wind. Particles and reactions and nothing more. That love you feel when your heart is thumping wildly over that special someone? Mere chemistry. And not the kind that implies a transcendent state. Just lab-coat chemistry. I read Nagel because this kind of reductionism just doesn’t fit reality as I’ve experienced it. I’m no physicist, but I’m all I’ve got. And my reason tells me that there’s something more too it.

Nagel approaches the issue by examining the origins of mind. Whence does consciousness emerge? Using precise, carefully selected reasoning, he demonstrates that there is a chance that consciousness is inherent in this universe we inhabit. Just as bodies are built of cells, and cells are built of proteins built of molecules built of atoms, the mind could be constructed of components as well. I can’t replicate Nagel’s elegance of expression, but his suggestion that we may be part of a universe beginning to awake is as much poetry as it is logic. And that, more than anything else, is a reflection on the complexity of being human. We are meaning-seeking creatures. Being told that we’re mechanistic automatons is like slamming a door in a two-year old’s face. If I am merely particles and tiny jolts of electricity, I’m going to take the particles that make Nagel’s book with me as I try to reconcile myself to a universe where nothing is really what it seems.

Klaatu Barada Nikto

I grew up with robots. Of course they were on the television screen and I was far away in rural-ish western Pennsylvania. They were exotic creatures built by guys much more intelligent than I could ever hope to be, and they were powerful, completely rational, and scary. Now I find myself involved with the FIRST Robotics team in my daughter’s high school where kids a third my age are building a robot. It is a humbling experience.

The more I ponder my small support role in the construction of a robotic creature, the more my thoughts turn to George Dyson’s masterful science writing in one of my favorite books — Darwin Among the Machines: the Evolution of Global Intelligence. I would not have known of this brilliant book had I not met George and a group of his friends several years back while they were discussing some of the ideas raised in his work. The main one that captured my attention was the premise that when we build machines we may be constructing an unrecognized form of consciousness. The greatest minds in neuroscience today cannot agree on what consciousness really is or how far it extends beyond this “three-pound universe” in our heads. Although most would decline to comment on the overtly religious term “soul,” we still know that any difference between consciousness, mind, psyche, and soul is very slim indeed.

Read this book!

Our lifestyle is made possible by robots. We drive cars largely constructed by them, use their chips to communicate over vast distances, and even take a stroll on the surface of Mars with them. My question from Monday’s post may have been whimsical, but it was serious. Where is it that the essence of a creature resides? Does it require carbon-based biology, or do we, unwittingly, create a race of slaves just like the gods of old?