Saturday, August 22, 2015

Spirit, Dualism, and Consciousness

"I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual." I've heard that from plenty of people. What does it mean? The not having a religion part I understand. Some who claim free-floating spirituality believe in God, and others don't. Most think they have something like a soul and some sort of cosmic link or immortality.

Duality, the belief that individuals have both a body and a non-material component, call it mind or soul or spirit, is an old concept. The ancient Egyptians had it, but it may be an idea that existed before civilization started.

I reject it. And I am not alone in that. Consider what Nick Lane has to say in Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution:

"Another paradox that can be addressed quite simply, at least in part, is the perception that our minds are immaterial, and our feelings ineffable . . . The essential insight is that the mind does not, indeed cannot, detect the existence of the brain. We perceive neither the brain nor the physical nature of the mind by thinking about it. Only the objective methods of science have linked the mind with the physical workings of the brain. How remarkably misguided we have been in the past is exemplified by the ancient Egyptians, who in embalming their kings preserved the heart and other organs with great care (they took the heart to be the seat of emotion and mind), but scooped the brain our through the nose with a hook . . . They were uncertain what the brain was for.

That was published in 2009. Ponder it. Our minds do not seem material, the feeling is of a consciousness immersed in a body immersed in the material world (or the illusion of a material world, if you belong to an illusionist religion or sect of philosophy).

Now consider what Ludwig Wittgenstein had to say in Philosophical Investigations:

412. The feeling of an unbridgeable gulf between consciousness and brain-process: how does it come about that this does not come into the consideration of our ordinary life? This idea of a difference in kind is accompanied by slight giddiness — which occurs when we are performing a piece of logical slight-of-hand. (The same giddiness attacks us when we think of certain theorems in set theory.) When does this feeling occur in the present case? It is when I, for example, turn my attention in a particular way on to my own consciousness, and, astonished, say to myself: THIS is supposed to be produced by a process in the brain! — as it were clutching my forehead.

Of course both Wittgenstein and Lane go on quite a bit. We can dissect the idea endlessly. We can watch someone else go unconscious when they sniff chloroform, take a sleeping pill, get hit on the head, or catch a bullet. But we still feel like a spirit, and if we try to analyze that, may end up scratching our heads and noticing that we are aware of the sensation of our skulls being scratched.

And so the quest to understand consciousness by understanding that mass of neurons known as the brain goes on. And even if it does come to be understood by a few, as quantum physics is, most people will either have to take the new understanding on faith, or stick to the older idea.

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