Monday, May 30, 2011

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Scientists, when they investigate any question as science, are limited by the scientific method. They have to concern themselves with theories which make empirical claims and predictions which can be verified or falsified, or at the very least, they have to consider hypotheses that are potentially verifiable, even though they may not be so at the moment. Philosophers, on the other hand, are not limited by these concerns. For the same reason, there is hardly anything that philosophers can say with definite certainty which would leave little room for legitimate disagreement.

Here is a list of the major philosophical positions on the mind-body problem. Perhaps none of these can be refuted beyond doubt; some of the positions do seem unlikely to us given our present state of knowledge (such as Philosophical Behaviorism and Popular Dualism) but most of the positions listed are still philosophically tenable, and we can find philosophers supporting respective positions all over the spectrum. Neuroscientists investigating the mind-body problem are limited by the scientific method and do not have this luxury. They cannot work with philosophical ideas that make no empirical predictions, or that deal with issues that cannot be investigated by scientific means. There are only a limited number of philosophical positions that neuroscientists can work with as provisional hypotheses; Physicalism (reductive as well as non-reductive) and Functionalism are the most popular among scientists for understandable reasons. Just as a biologist cannot work with Intelligent Design (because no matter what its status as a philosophy, it is not science), neuroscientists cannot work with non-physical philosophies of mind. The approach is not without advantage, because science is remarkably good at shedding light on what it can shed light on. If a biologist proves natural selection as a valid scientific theory, then it automatically renders intelligent design untenable. If neuroscientists can prove some physical theory of consciousness, then it would render all other theories untenable. If they show physical theories to be inadequate in providing a full-explanation of the problem, then non-physical theories would still remain tenable, but even so, exploring the physical theories by science would have opened up new arenas of empirical observation, which would make it possible for further philosophical positions to be scientifically investigated.

What's the moral of the story? I think if this background is kept in mind, it would lead to healthier discussions on the mind-body problems. Philosophers have to understand why scientists can only work with physical theories of consciousness, and scientists have to understand that just because they can only work with physical theories doesn't mean that they have already demonstrated non-physical theories to be invalid and any philosopher disagreeing with them is being unscientific. Philosophers should be limited by the already established scientific facts, but they are not limited by the scientific method when it comes to the unknown.
Philosophers like to believe that reasoning helps us arrive at truth, ridding us of false beliefs and helping us make better decisions; that reasoning is the best way of being rational. Psychologists, however, are now undermining this assumption. While reasoning in a certain context may indeed help us be rational, reasoning in general is ill-equipped for truth.

So claims the Argumentative Theory of Reasoning, which is garnering a lot of attention, and deservedly so.

Here you can read the abstract of the paper:

"Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation."

Here is an excellent article on Edge about the theory:

"Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That's why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning... The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things."

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Trust David Chalmers to come up with (tormentingly) intriguing thought-experiments!

From wikipedia entry on Dualism: "David Chalmers recently developed a thought experiment inspired by the movie The Matrix in which substance dualism could be true: Consider a computer simulation in which the bodies of the creatures are controlled by their minds and the minds remain strictly external to the simulation. The creatures can do all the science they want in the world, but they will never be able to figure out where their minds are, for they do not exist in their observable universe. This is a case of substance dualism with respect to computer simulation."

For Chalmer's original formulation of it, see Note 6 of his paper The Matrix as Metaphysics: "It is interesting to note that the Matrix Hypothesis shows a concrete way in which Cartesian substance dualism might have turned out to be true. It is sometimes held that the idea of physical processes interacting with a nonphysical mind is not just implausible but incoherent. The Matrix Hypothesis suggests fairly straightforwardly that this is wrong. Under this hypothesis, our cognitive system involves processes quite distinct from the processes in the physical world, but there is a straightforward causal story about how they interact...."

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sean M. Carroll at Scientific American argues that agnosticism about an immaterial soul and life after death is no longer justified in the light of modern science:

"Even if you don't believe that human beings are "simply" collections of atoms evolving and interacting according to rules laid down in the Standard Model of particle physics, most people would grudgingly admit that atoms are part of who we are. If it's really nothing but atoms and the known forces, there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death. Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model. Most importantly, we need some way for that "new physics" to interact with the atoms that we do have.

Very roughly speaking, when most people think about an immaterial soul that persists after death, they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV. The questions are these: what form does that spirit energy take, and how does it interact with our ordinary atoms? Not only is new physics required, but dramatically new physics. Within QFT, there can't be a new collection of "spirit particles" and "spirit forces" that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments. Ockham's razor is not on your side here, since you have to posit a completely new realm of reality obeying very different rules than the ones we know.

But let's say you do that. How is the spirit energy supposed to interact with us? Here is the equation that tells us how electrons behave in the everyday world:

Don't worry about the details; it's the fact that the equation exists that matters, not its particular form. It's the Dirac equation -- the two terms on the left are roughly the velocity of the electron and its inertia -- coupled to electromagnetism and gravity, the two terms on the right.

As far as every experiment ever done is concerned, this equation is the correct description of how electrons behave at everyday energies. It's not a complete description; we haven't included the weak nuclear force, or couplings to hypothetical particles like the Higgs boson. But that's okay, since those are only important at high energies and/or short distances, very far from the regime of relevance to the human brain.

If you believe in an immaterial soul that interacts with our bodies, you need to believe that this equation is not right, even at everyday energies. There needs to be a new term (at minimum) on the right, representing how the soul interacts with electrons. (If that term doesn't exist, electrons will just go on their way as if there weren't any soul at all, and then what's the point?) So any respectable scientist who took this idea seriously would be asking -- what form does that interaction take? Is it local in spacetime? Does the soul respect gauge invariance and Lorentz invariance? Does the soul have a Hamiltonian? Do the interactions preserve unitarity and conservation of information?"

As far as commonly prevalent notions of soul as substance dualism go, this is a pretty effective criticism. Substance dualism does struggle badly to retain credibility given all that we know about modern physics and neuroscience. But this is not the end of the story, because Sean Carroll ignores a very crucial part of the debate. The Standard Model of particle physics as yet cannot account for how consciousness is produced. It is true that in the light of what we know from neuroscience it is an almost certain scientific fact that consciousness is produced by the brain, and I have no intention of disputing that. However, it is far from clear how the brain produces consciousness. The Standard Model of particle physics offers no clues as to how consciousness can be generated in neuronal circuits from purely physical processes.

Yes, it would be rational for a scientist to hypothesize that the unknown mechanism of consciousness would turn out to be entirely consistent with current knowledge of modern science, but it is not something that we know for a fact. While Physicalism is a reasonable philosophical position to take for a scientist, it is by no means the only reasonable position to take. It is entirely possible that the basic constituents of matter possess non-physical properties that are precursors to phenomenal consciousness and which ultimately lead to the development of conscious awareness within neuronal circuits. This position is a variant of Panpsychism. Obviously, I do not know, nor I am in a position to hypothesize as to how these non-physical properties may be demonstrated and how these non-physical properties create consciousness. The matter is still at a very basic stage of philosophization, though ultimately I do believe the matter would be resolved by scientific means.

Either: The standard model of particle physics is complete and correct, and is consistent with the generation of consciousness is some as yet unknown way. (Physicalism)

Or: The standard model of particle physics is not complete, and there are as yet unknown non-physical properties of basic constituents of matter that are precursors to consciousness and ultimately lead to conscious awareness in neuronal circuits. (Panpsychism)

P.S. I do not think that panpsychism provides a sufficient basis for belief in an immaterial soul and life-after-death. I am afraid believers in these two are still going to struggle to explain how these beliefs can be justifiably maintained in the light of modern science.
Dealing with manufactured offence: Alfonzo Fyfe's guest post at Common Sense Atheism.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Kierkegaard presents a contrast between a Christian who prays to God 'in a false spirit' and an idolater who prays to an idol 'with the passion of the infinite', and concludes that 'The one prays in truth to God though he worships an idol; the other prays falsely to the true God, and hence worships in fact an idol.' Kierkegaard is an advocate of passionate faith and 'subjective truth' which he describes as a being determined by the nature of the relationship of the individual to conception of God rather than what may objectively be true: 'if only the mode of this relationship is in the truth, the individual is in the truth even if he should happen to be thus related to what is not true.' [Concluding Unscientific Postscript]

Walter Kaufman comments on this: "the contrast of the passionate idolater with the Christian who 'prays in false spirit' is attractive. But is Kierkegaard's knowledge of what constitutes a false spirit objective or subjective? And are passion and the feeling of certainty a warrant of any kind of truth -- even "subjective truth"? The contrast is posed in such terms that the reader may be ready to grant the ethico-religious superiority of those who are passionate and feel certain; but suppose it were posed in different terms, with a fanatic on one side and a person with more humility on the other. Is there nothing to be said in favor of those who are mindful of their fallibility precisely in matters of faith and morals?" [My italics. Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre]

Monday, May 23, 2011

on deviantART
"Do not be bewildered by the surfaces; in the depths all becomes law."

Rainer Maria Rilke

Sunday, May 22, 2011

"Today I had the shock of my life." She made a smack with her lips.
"What happened?"
"I met this new girl, Tara Tanvir. She's got a rep."
I said, "Wow."
She screwed on the cap to the lipstick and returned it to the self, watching herself perform this neutral function.
I said, "What's your rep?"
And she said, "I don't have a rep." She altered her expression in the mirror to one of piety and innocence, then changed it abruptly to one of trauma and shock.
"What's mine?"
"Boys don't get reps. Only girls get reps. Like only girls get boobs."

Ali Sethi, The Wish Maker
X: I want my love to be more than my desire to not hurt you.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Finally, Awais-and-Aati combo has its first appearance in Pakistani print media through Us magazine.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Believing with a measure of doubt; belief with the spirit of hypothesis:

"If a member of the so-called intellectual class joins any religious group or openly subscribes to its teaching, he will have to prepare himself for a good deal of criticism from his unconverted and more skeptical friends. Some of these may be sympathetic and genuinely interested; others will be covertly satirical, suspicious, or quite frankly hostile and dismayed.... One question, especially, he must learn to expect. It will be asked by the most candid, by those who really want to know: "Yes, of course, I can quite understand why you did it, in a way . . . but tell me, do you actually believe all that?" This question is particularly distressing to the convert, because, if he is to be honest, he will have to answer: "No. I don't yet."

The "all that" to which the questioner refers will vary in detail and mode of formulation, according to the religious group the convert happens to have chosen. In essence, however, it can always be covered by what Aldous Huxley has called "the minimum working hypothesis." This word "hypothesis" is extremely significant, but it will probably be overlooked by the outside observer, who prefers to simplify his picture of the world's religions by regarding their teachings as "creeds" and "dogmas." Nevertheless, a statement of religious doctrine can be properly called a creed only by those who know it to be true. It remains an hypothesis as long as you are not quite sure. Spiritual truth is, by definition, directly revealed and experienced: it cannot be known at second hand. What is revealed truth to a Christ is merely hypothetical truth to the vast majority of his followers; but this need not prevent the followers from trusting in Christ's personal integrity and in the authenticity of his revelation, as far as Christ himself is concerned. One can feel sure that Einstein is neither a fraud nor a lunatic, and that he has actually discovered the law of relativity; and still fail, in a certain sense, to "believe" in the conception of Space-Time, just because one has not yet personally understood it."

Christopher Isherwood, Hypothesis and Belief

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mouse-over text: But to us there is but one God, plus or minus one. -- 1 Corintheans 8:6 ± 2

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

From the urdu short story Maan Jee by Qudrat-U-Allah Shahab.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Neurologist VS Ramachandran talks about the case of split-brain patient whose one hemisphere believes in a God and the other one doesn't!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

'You have an interesting face. I would like to do your portrait. I have a feeling we will do great things together.'--Pablo Picasso

This is a slide-show of some paintings by Pablo Picasso from an on-going art exhibition at Gagosian, titled Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’amour fou. It "brings together the paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints inspired by one of Picasso’s most ideal models and enduring passions"; his mistress and love Marie-Thérèse, who made Picasso the painter he was after cubism.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World's Great Physicists, edited by Ken Wilber is a refreshing book to read. It is a collection of writings of the founding fathers of modern physics. Eight great scientists: Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Einstein, de Broglie, Jeans, Plank, Pauli, and Eddington. In these essays they have elaborated their philosophical thoughts on the nature of reality. And this is what would surprise most people: All of the physicists in this collection were not the narrow materialists that modern scientists are imagined to be. All of them were sympathetic to a mystical worldview. This is not to say that they believed modern physics proved mysticism but they realized that there was a transcendent reality that could not be captured by the symbols and equations of physics. None of them was religious in the conventional sense either. To use Pauli's words, he considered the relation between him and theologians to be that of a 'hostile brother'.

All of these physicists were neither mystics nor philosophers, so how can we treat them as authorities on this subject matter? Well, we can't. But they were among the most brilliant minds the last century had to offer, and the philosophical issues these people grappled with and the answers they came up with are, at least, worthy of consideration.

Below are short quotations from some of the physicists to give a small taste of what the book offers:

Werner Heisenberg:

* "I think that on this point modern physics has definitely decided for Plato. For the smallest units of matter are, in fact, not physical objects in the ordinary sense of the word; they are forms, structures or -- in Plato's sense -- Ideas, which can be unambiguously spoken of only in the language of mathematics."

* "Wolfgang asked me quite unexpectedly:
"Do you believe in a personal God? I know, of course, how difficult it is to attach a clear meaning to this question, but you can probably appreciate its general purport."
"May I rephrase your question?" I asked. "I myself should prefer the following formulation: Can you, or anyone else, reach the central order of things or events, whose existence seems beyond doubt, as directly as you can reach the soul of another human being?... If you put your question like that, I would say yes."

Erwin Schroedinger:

* "Let me briefly mention the notorious atheism of science... Science has to suffer this reproach again and again, but unjustly so. No personal god can form part of a world-model that has only become accessible at the cost of removing everything personal from it. We know, when God is experienced, this is an event as real as an immediate sense perception or as one's own personality. Like them, he must be missing in the space-time picture. I do not find God anywhere in space and time -- this is what the honest naturalist tells you. For this, he incurs blame from him in whose catechism is written: God is spirit."

* "From the early great Upanishads the recognition ATMAN = BRAHMAN (the personal self equals the omnipresent, all-comprehending eternal self) was in Indian thought considered, far from being blasphemous, to represent the quintessence of deepest insight into the happenings of the world. The striving of all the scholars of Vedanta was, after having learnt to pronounce with their lips, really to assimilate in their minds this grandest of all thoughts.

Again, the mystics of many centuries, independently, yet in perfect harmony with each other (somewhat like particles in an ideal gas) have described, each of them, the unique experience of his or her life in terms that can be condensed in the phrase: DEUS FACTUS SUM (I have become God.)"

Albert Einstein:

* "Common to all these types is the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God. Only individuals of exceptional endowments and exceptionally high-minded communities, as a general rule, get in any real sense beyond this level. But there is a third state of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form, and which I will call cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to explain this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.

The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvellous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear in earlier stages of development—e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learnt from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer especially, contains a much stronger element of it.

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image; so that there can be no Church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with the highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as Atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.

How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another, if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are capable of it. We thus arrive at a conception of the relation of science to religion very different from the usual one."

Sir James Jeans:

* "We are led into the heart of the problem of the relation between mind and matter... [Imagine a poet sees the light originating from a star and has a poetic thought] There is a continuous chain, A, B, C, D... X, Y, Z, connecting A the poetic thought - through B the thinking mind, C the brain, D the optic nerve, and so on - with Z the atomic disturbance in the sun.... [It is difficult] to see how a disturbance of material atoms can cause a poetic thought to originate, because the two are so entirely dissimilar in nature....

Berkeley and the idealist philosophers agreed with Descartes that if mind and matter were fundamentally of different natures they could never interact. But they insisted that they continually do interact. Therefore, they argued, matter must be of the same nature as mind.... Modern science seems to me to lead, by a very different road, to a not altogether dissimilar conclusion....

Physical science, troubling little with C, D, proceeds directly to the far end of the chain, its business is to study the workings of X, Y, Z. And it seems to me, its conclusions suggest that the end links of the chain, whether we go to the cosmos as a whole or to the innermost structure of the atom, are of the same nature as A, B -- of the nature of pure thought; we are led to the conclusions of Berkeley, but we reach them from the other end. Because of this we come upon the last of Berkeley's three alternatives first, and the others appear unimportant by comparison. It does not matter whether objects 'exist in my mind, or that of any other created spirit' or not; their objectivity arises from their subsisting 'in the mind of some Eternal Spirit.'"

Wolfgang Pauli:

* "The attempt at a psychophysical monism seems to me now essentially more promising, given that the relevant unitary language (unknown as yet, and neutral in regards to the psychophysical antithesis) would relate to a deeper invisible reality. We should then have found a mode of expression for the unity of all being, transcending the causality of classical physics as form of correspondence (Bohr); a unity of which the psyhophysical interrelation, and the coincidence of a priori instinctive forms of ideation with external perceptions, are special cases. On such a view, traditional ontology and metaphysics become the sacrifice, but the choice falls on the unity of being."

* "I consider the ambition of overcoming opposites, including also a synthesis embracing both rational understanding and the mystical experience of unity, to be the mythos, spoken or unspoken, of our present day and age."

Sir Arthur Eddington:

* "To put the conclusion crudely -- the stuff of the world is mind-stuff."

* "If I were to try to put into words the essential truth revealed in the mystic experience, it would be that our minds are not apart from the world, and the feelings that we have of gladness and melancholy and our yet deeper feelings are not of ourselves alone, but are glimpses of a reality transcending the narrow limits of our particular consciousness -- that the harmony and beauty of the face of Nature is, at root, one with the gladness that transfigures the face of man."

* "The idea of a Universal Mind or Logos would be, I think, a fairly plausible inference from the present state of scientific theory; at least, it is in harmony with it. But if so, all that our inquiry justifies us in asserting is a purely colourless pantheism. Science cannot tell whether the world-spirit is good or evil, and its halting argument for the existence of a God might equally well be turned into an argument for the existence of a Devil.... [T]here is not much hope of guidance from it as to ethical orientation. We trust to some inward sense of fitness when we orient the physical world with the future on top, and, likewise, we must trust to some inner monitor when we orient the spiritual world with the good on top.... The question is almost beyond my scope... It is obvious that the insight of consciousness, although the only avenue to what I have called intimate knowledge of the reality beyond the symbols of science, is not to be trusted implicitly without control. In history, religious mysticism has often been associated with extravagances that cannot be approved,... but that does not necessarily imply that no advance is possible."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

"To put it romantically, blogging is a vehicle for the relentless quotidian sifting, seeking, and questing for sense and truth and reality without which some of us would find life meaningless."

Maverick Philosopher, on the blog's 7th Blogiversary

So beautifully expresses the sentiment that I feel myself!

Monday, May 2, 2011

"Even if the struggling world is left outside
One man's perfection still can save the world."

Sri Aurobindo, Savitri.

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