Tuesday, October 02, 2007

On the Mind

Live Science places the mind-body connection at number ten on its list of unexplained phenomena. Number one is the Taos Hum, which is just stupid. How body produces mind is, of course, the most important unexplained phenomenon because, unlike all the others, we have now idea how it might be explained. This was the point I was making in my book review at the weekend and which was so brilliantly and entertainingly described by Jerry Fodor
Anyway - bear with me, this will make sense in the end - we seem to have found a suicide gene. Past experience suggests this claim will be swiftly withdrawn. But the point is the form of the thought. An amino acid called glutamate is said to be involved in the creation of suicidal thoughts. Meanwhile, the professional sceptic James Randi has offered a prize of $1 million to anybody who can show that $7,250 speaker cables are any better than cables costing $80. Randi usually exposes claims about paranormal phenomena. The implication here, therefore, is that audiophiles who claim to hear a difference are victims of the same kind of deluded hysteria that makes people believe in aliens, ghost, out of body experiences and so on. Finally, here is an interesting discussion on the authority of the critic. Ronan McDonald points out that traditional critics who might aspire to teach their readers have lost power to the new critics who simply find things they believe their readers will like. This issue is also raised by this muddled piece about the Turner Prize.
All of these stories are evidence of a struggle within the contemporary imagination about the nature of reality or, to put it another way, about the objective status of mind. Is a thought about suicide reducible to the effects of a single chemical? Is the audiophile really hearing or difference - in which case what can it mean to say he is deluded? - or simply lying? He may be enoying the benefits of something like the placebo effect, which, as we know, is objectively effective. And does authority play any role in our reaction to art or can we only rely on our untutored, subjective judgment, of our mind?
These are all, in fact, the same story.


  1. The answer is no.
    When one sees cave paintings, the Don may say 40,000, while the child next to you may say "I did it". Which holds the authority.

    BTW, congrats on the move. But your post mentioned IN NotHill and not ON. This had me stumped for a while, 'til it dawned that all had a basement. ET, lord Holland must be spinning like a top.

  2. 'how body produces mind...' Sorry, but we don't even know it's that way round, do we?

  3. We have body, which is made up of a congregation of cells, and the whole lot can be reduced to a subatomic vibration. All these three elements must be connected in some fundamental way.
    My own view is that consciousness will eventually be found in the subatomic, what we call mind being simply our part of the whole.
    As for the objectivity thing, perhaps we should accept that there are three influences upon behaviour - nature, nurture and culture. The 'story' of what we think we are is maybe predominant.

  4. Old Randi reminds me of the time we were discussing costs of hi-fi, sound systems etc. At that point, in walked the professor of acoustics - we were attending a lecture of his. Naturally, someone asked his opinion and he replied, ''you should be concentrating on the music, not the hi-fi''. he was cool for an old guy.

    it's the same old bollocks when people talk about vinyl vs digital, or mp3 vs. CD or speakers vs. headphones, etc. it's always less important than the music.

  5. yes, he's being duped into thinking cost is proportional to quality.

    yes, it works both ways: sometimes we can't see until we are informed and sometimes we are informed wrongly and were better off relying on our own untutored judgement. like finding monty python funny, for instance!

  6. what's he saying on turner prize? I'm not sure. what I think is art - that's paintings, sculpture etc. - needs a certain degree of authority. Otherwise we'll just be looking at endless lines of Jack Vettriano etc. (I've nothing against Jack, he's good at what he does but it isn't nearly enough, is it?)

  7. The Wired article about the suicide gene that you link to contains this brilliant line: "Genetic testing has been done for years, but most research has focused on rare diseases like cancer or Huntington's disease, so the impact on public health has been limited."

    Is cancer really a rare disease? I think the author of the article may have had a coconut fall on his head at some point.

  8. All of these stories are evidence of a struggle against reality, methinks.

  9. Hi Bryan,

    I'm with Nige, that it would rather seem the other way around. After all, our experience is not physical at all. That which we refer to as physical is inferred, then assumed. For instance, because I see this web page, and others-not-me "communicate" that they see it too, I decide to spend my life assuming that there is a medium called "reality"--and shared web pages are part of that reality. Furthermore, if I say I see or hear things that others-not-me don't, these are called illusions, unshared phenomena, and I am seen to be either mentally ill or on drugs.

    None of this means, of course, that reality exists as such. We could be experiencing a hair on the toe of an elephant, without ever being able to develop any capability of experiencing anything beyond our little slice of whatever reality is. (The question is, what on earth causes us to experience such a reality?)

    If we go the other way, that material creates a soul, an issue develops that you touched on in the chess-playing machine. Why are we not all zombies? What do we need a consciousness for? Why would such a useless thing evolve? Zombiness works perfectly, by definition--each ensuing behavior we make, is caused (directly or through probability, but ultimately directly) by the physical forces at work just preceding them. Free will is a shared illusion.

    There have been religions, that assume other races don't have souls, or that women don't, that there are people who think thoughts and speak and such, these zombies. And materially speaking, why not? If we hold to the belief that everyone else a zombie, we bevome sociopathic. What's pain to a zombie-other? Why not torture someone? Animals and others have no soul, after all?

    So it must go the other way, that the material world "we" seem to be sharing, is a hair on the toe of some "other", some reality elephant that is an aspect of being the spiritual beings we are or have become in this lifetime. Without such a medium of a physical world, how could we be with each other? Physical reality gives us a playing field through which we may interact.

    The extraordinary thing about this, is that so much of the rules of the elephant's behavior, can be found by examining how the smallest of molecules and such work and affect each other. We can make medicines that heal us, and drugs that affect the way we perceive. There is so much to be said about this material phenomenon, so much to be discovered in how we can be so affected by what at first glance appears to be an illusion (after all, babies have to learn how gravity and such works, developmental psychology is all about adjusting oneself to the "world" unless autistic) that it is understandable how we can get lost in it, become so materialistic.

    One step further, something in Stanislaw Lem's writing. There is the idea of a machine, that a soul can be plugged into, that a soul can be fooled throughout his or her entire lifetime, that everything exists, when all is just a computer-game-type simulation. The Matrix picks up on this idea. We have all taken the red pill. The Matric really shows just how oppressive this reality we are plugged into can be.

    The other side to this, though, is that we are able to be plugged in. It is part of our natures, maybe a toe hair's part, but a part nonetheless, to be susceptible to being plugged into physicalness. We adapt well to it.

  10. Rus: Very intelligent comment; I enjoyed reading it. Your mind is far more glorious than the hair on a toe of an elephant!

  11. Maybe the thought of suicide induces the amino acid into the body the same way thinking happy thoughts will produce endorphins.
    If someone then has excessive suicidal thoughts it could cause a snowball effect down the generations making the rate of glutamate production higher for his family line therby making suicidal thoughts more intense.

  12. Good point, River of d. If someone with an ax comes running at you screaming, you will have a rush of adrenalin. So the biochemical "causes" we hear so much about, may in fact be biochemical effects.
    And bravo, Rus! A wonderful comment.

  13. The modern belief is that the soul is in the body, and somehow inhabits it. The Medieval belief was that the body is in the soul; some of the alchemical and theological accounts describe something very like an energy field, or aura, which they thought to be the soul.

    I tend towards the Medieval belief, based on my own experience.

    I can say this, though. While I'm pretty sure that mind is not just an emergent phenomenon of the body's electrochemical processes, I am very sure that the mind and the body are not divorced and separate. Cartesian mind-boy dualism is one of the biggest mistakes ever.

  14. Hi Art,

    In that sense we have not really come very far. All we have done is study things further. But you point to the authority question.

    It is all about what we as an individual can both (1) understand and (2) accept. If all someone can understand is some prevalent dualism, then that's as far as she can go with it. On the acceptance matter, there are people who accept what is law or from the authorities as the end of thinking. This applies to whether certain others have souls.

    Not everyone develops beyond these points. So whatever is the law, has a lot to say about what the majority of people will believe. But once we have broken through these two walls of understanding and acceptance, we then choose. For instance, does a fetus have a soul? You cannot prove anything one way or another. You can only apply a mode of thinking to it. We either say, yes, from my way of thinking a fetus has a soul; or no, there is no soul in an undeveloped baby.