Thomas Nagel: Mind and Cosmos

Thomas Nagel: Mind and Cosmos
Benkei
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Posted Jan 4, 2013 - 6:01 AM:
Subject: Thomas Nagel: Mind and Cosmos
First off, I haven't read the book - just a few reviews to get a gist of what he's talking about which made me decide I probably don't want to read it - barring someone convincing me otherwise here.

Nagel seems to assume several things when discussing how he considers that the mind-body problem cannot be answered by science, that materialistic Darwinism is false and that there is a "what-it's-like-ness" aspect of knowledge. Some of these assumptions seem to be unnecessary. For instance:

1. Science must explain nature (instead of predicting how nature behaves)
2. "What-it's-like-ness" is separate but also scientific knowledge (I'd say: it's knowledge just not knowledge science is interested in)

I'd consider this an experiential difference of knowledge but doesn't change the predictive power of a given scientific theory. Certainly, I cannot experience what it's like to be a bat but this lack of experiential knowledge does not bar me from establishing a scientific theory what it's like to be a bat. I don't need to experience blindness, to know blindness exists and that it's common in all species of bats. On the basis of those facts I can postulate that bats navigate through sonar and/or smell and test that idea.

Other assumptions but that aren't necessarily unnecessary include:

a. There is a mind-body problem

Why can't this be similar to spacetime? We talk about space and time separately in everyday life but the more predictive theories assume they are interrelated. That would make the mind-body problem just a consequence of how we talk; where we never observed physical effects caused by consciousness and therefore assumed some sort of mysterious separation. Nowadays we can see neurons firing as we contemplate our own actions but the distinction as the "mind" or "consciousness" being special and qualitatively different then electrical currents remains. So we talk about a separation that doesn't really exist due to tradition and historical reasons.

b. Because scientific explanations currently do not exist, there is no scientific explanation

An example of such reasoning is found in one of the reviews defending Nagel.

Malcolm Nicholson wrote:
Take perception: photons bounce off objects and hit the eye, cones and rods translate this into a chemical reaction, this reaction moves into the neurons in our brain, some more reactions take place and then…you see something. Everything up until seeing something is subject to scientific laws, but, somewhere between neurons and experience, scientific explanation ends.


But this is a fallacy, just because no scientific explanation (currently) exists (or more accurately, scientific prediction) does not mean it is not regulated by underlying natural laws (as described by science, there are no "scientific laws" in my view).

Moreover, it is counter intuitive to assume it isn't in some way regulated by underlying natural laws. We share a lot of our experiential knowledge through words. By and large, such experiences of the same events are similar to each other. This indicates that despite two people not having the same experience, there is sufficient coherence between testimonies that it's statistically much more likely this is regulated by natural laws than not.

Additionally, brain damage that are personality altering also indicate our "consciousness" is predicated on the physical.

Finally, I consider that scientific knowledge is not a one-on-one representation of reality, which is suggested by the "what-it's-like-ness" idea of scientific knowledge. Instead it is a condensation, a summary of reality. Summarised in such a way that we have useful prediction about nature.

Edited by Benkei on Jan 4, 2013 - 7:40 AM
schopenhauer1
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Posted Jan 4, 2013 - 6:27 AM:

Benkei wrote:
1. Science must explain nature (instead of predicting how nature behaves)
2. "What-it's-like-ness" is separate but also scientific knowledge (it's knowledge just not knowledge science is interested in)

This theory seems to be discussing the divide between the scientific materialist approach and the phenomenological approach to understanding consciousness, no? The scientific materialist would focus on neuronic activity, neural networks, brain structures, protein/genetic/cellular level interactions in the nervous system. The phenomenologist would try to understand how these activities are actually felt by the subject. Phenomenologists are interested in the introspective impressions of the subject from their cognitive self-reflections. It seems to me the "hard problem of consciousness" is the great divide in the two approaches. You can have a mechanism explain the function, but the question still remains how some neurons, or perhaps, patterns of firings of neurons, are subjective consciousness.



Edited by schopenhauer1 on Jan 4, 2013 - 6:35 AM
Benkei
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Posted Jan 4, 2013 - 7:43 AM:

schopenhauer1 wrote:
This theory seems to be discussing the divide between the scientific materialist approach and the phenomenological approach to understanding consciousness, no? The scientific materialist would focus on neuronic activity, neural networks, brain structures, protein/genetic/cellular level interactions in the nervous system. The phenomenologist would try to understand how these activities are actually felt by the subject. Phenomenologists are interested in the introspective impressions of the subject from their cognitive self-reflections. It seems to me the "hard problem of consciousness" is the great divide in the two approaches. You can have a mechanism explain the function, but the question still remains how some neurons, or perhaps, patterns of firings of neurons, are subjective consciousness.


Why not answer simply: they pertain to subjective consciousness because they are embodied in a separate subject?
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Posted Jan 4, 2013 - 7:56 AM:

Benkei wrote:
Why not answer simply: they pertain to subjective consciousness because they are embodied in a separate subject?


You have to unpack the word "embodied". I am not sure what you are getting at here. Are you discussing the "embodied" cognition theory of consciousness? If so, how is this responding to how neuronal activity creates consciousness (the subjective phenomenon of)?
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Posted Jan 4, 2013 - 8:22 AM:

schopenhauer1 wrote:


You have to unpack the word "embodied". I am not sure what you are getting at here. Are you discussing the "embodied" cognition theory of consciousness? If so, how is this responding to how neuronal activity creates consciousness (the subjective phenomenon of).


Nah, it was more of a quip than anything else. Consciousness is "subjective" because they (neurons) are grouped together in a subject - just a different reading of your statement. I suppose I agree with Daniel Dennett on the subject: there is most likely no hard problem.

Chalmers stated for instance: "It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should."

I find such statements perplexing. Because he considers it rich, it is "unreasonable"? Rich compared to what? Other minds? Oh wait, those are mostly the same because he is so surprised all human minds are so rich. Did he compare it with animal minds? Oh wait, those have (limited) consciousness and experiences as well. How is something that is so obviously "real", unreasonable "objectively" speaking? Seems rather confused to deny what is apparently the case.
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Posted Jan 4, 2013 - 9:00 AM:

Benkei wrote:


Nah, it was more of a quip than anything else. Consciousness is "subjective" because they (neurons) are grouped together in a subject - just a different reading of your statement. I suppose I agree with Daniel Dennett on the subject: there is most likely no hard problem.

Chalmers stated for instance: "It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should."

I find such statements perplexing. Because he considers it rich, it is "unreasonable"? Rich compared to what? Other minds? Oh wait, those are mostly the same because he is so surprised all human minds are so rich. Did he compare it with animal minds? Oh wait, those have (limited) consciousness and experiences as well. How is something that is so obviously "real", unreasonable "objectively" speaking? Seems rather confused to deny what is apparently the case.


Ah, word play and semantics- not surprised Benkei . Chalmers' question still remains valid. How is subjective thought the same as neuronal activity? This question still needs to be addressed scientifically, or given some sufficient reason for how these two types of phenomena are the same thing. I am a materialist myself, and fully believe the the scientific method is the "best" way to gain the greatest metaphysical insights- insights that have made outdated forms (most types of idealism in my opinion) seem less enticing.

I still don't think this question has been properly answered, however. I fail to see how things such as qualia, or simply our subjective experiences, don't exist, any real way. Perhaps it is just my failure to understand Dennett's claim. I still do not see how Dennett concludes subjective experiences do not exist, or are not real. I just don't see he explains away the phenomena of subjective experience. How can my internal representations, my thoughts, and observations, and direct experiences of the world, "be" neurons?



Edited by schopenhauer1 on Jan 4, 2013 - 9:12 AM
Benkei
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Posted Jan 4, 2013 - 9:18 AM:

schopenhauer1 wrote:
How is subjective thought the same as neuronal activity?


I think the point is that it hasn't been established that they are different. What differentiates "subjective thought" from those neurons firing just because photons fall on our eyes? It seems a case of anthropomorphism to assume that the experience, the reflection on stimuli, is somehow special.
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Posted Jan 4, 2013 - 9:48 AM:

Benkei wrote:
I think the point is that it hasn't been established that they are different. What differentiates "subjective thought" from those neurons firing just because photons fall on our eyes? It seems a case of anthropomorphism to assume that the experience, the reflection on stimuli, is somehow special.


But this fails to answer the question. These are all questions that relate to the soft questions of consciousness. Of course certain neural pathways correlate to various cognitive processes. We have made substantial inroads on this in many areas of brain function and continue to map various neural networks with much more precision as to exactly what regions correspond to what mental function. How a mind "is" this activity is the perplexing hard problem. Our subjective experiences are qualatively different than neurons. How are mental states equivalent to brain matter, even organized-in-specific-conscious-generating-ways brain matter?

My own answer to this question is to simply say that patterns of neurons are the experiences. Neuronal activity is the only matter in nature, as far as we know, that can be both "mental" and physical, when arranged properly. This still seems to beg the question a bit in my mind.
Benkei
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Posted Jan 4, 2013 - 10:01 AM:

schopenhauer1 wrote:


But this fails to answer the question. These are all questions that relate to the soft questions of consciousness. Of course certain neural pathways correlate to various cognitive processes. We have made substantial inroads on this in many areas of brain function and continue to map various neural networks with much more precision as to exactly what regions correspond to what mental function. How a mind "is" this activity is the perplexing hard problem. Our subjective experiences are qualatively different than neurons. How are mental states equivalent to brain matter, even organized-in-specific-conscious-generating-ways brain matter?


I must just miss the problem and not get the question then. And I seem to be saying pretty much the same as what you just gave as an answer. Except that you believe the question is still valid. I don't see why there must be a separation between states of consciousness and neurons firing. This is assumed and the assumption gives rise to the question. If you let go of the assumption then there is no "mental", there is just the physical. Thoughts are physical, just a certain configuration of neurons.

I don't find it particularly hard to imagine. There's no reason why a certain set of electronic activity cannot generate an "output" we call experience.


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Posted Jan 4, 2013 - 10:25 AM:

Benkei wrote:
I don't find it particularly hard to imagine. There's no reason why a certain set of electronic activity cannot generate an "output" we call experience.


We do agree, that brain matter, organized in a certain way leads to consciosuness. What you may miss is how unusual this is. This "output" is like no other output in nature, and I guess why Chalmers was so astonished at its uniqueness. What is it about neuronal activity that makes it the only thing in nature to be equivalent to, as you call it, experience? We are not just saying neuronal activity generates experience, but neuronal activity "is" experience.
On Jan 4, 2013 - 10:33 AM, Benkei responded: Seems like it. Not more unique than anything existing at all from my point of view.
On Jan 4, 2013 - 10:50 AM, schopenhauer1 responded: I could not fit my response in here.
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