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Mind Games -- The Making of a Thriller, Part II

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So, as Part I of this "Making of a Thriller" blog series drew to a close, it alluded to a conundrum on which the plot of my technothriller Dualism was said to turn. Which is to say that Dualism the book spends at least some of its time grappling with Dualism the metaphysical stance, and hence with an issue central to the field called philosophy of mind -- namely, whether consciousness (as manifested both in humans and in, at the very least, other mammals) is of a piece with the physical world in which it subsists, or whether it represents something altogether separate and apart from material reality.

Philosophy of Mind

This so-called "mind/body problem" can trace its history back to the beginnings of philosophy itself, having first been raised by Plato. In his "allegory of the cave" introduced in Book VII of the Republic, Plato held that, far from comprehending all of reality, the material things we see all around us are mere shadows projected by a more truly real world of pure ideas wherein the soul itself finds its natural home.

In more recent times, the notion that mind and body are separate substances is most closely associated with Rene Descartes, who set out to subject all of his beliefs to a radical skepticism, but found that the one thing he could in no way doubt was the fact that he was thinking about doubting. Descartes wound up taking this Cogito, ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am") as the cornerstone of his attempt to construct a doubt-proof philosophy.

(Brief aside: So, Descartes is just finishing his lunch at a sidewalk Parisian café when the server walks up and asks him if he'd care to see a dessert menu. Descartes says, "I think not" -- and disappears! Bah-dum-dum!)

In any case, by formulating the Cogito, Descartes was implicitly espousing the view that mind exists independently as something distinct from, and different from, matter. Where he ran into problems was when he tried working his way back from the mind's reality to the reality of anything else.

Present-day physical science has the opposite problem: it can, potentially at least, reduce all the mechanics of the universe, from quarks to quasars, to Democritus's "atoms moving in a void," but seems to have a hard time accounting for the consciousness that, after all, is needed to contemplate this starkly reductionist vision.

Even so, such "root-and-branch" materialism does have a trump card to play and, in Dualism, Nietzsche (my AI character, not the German philosopher) plays it.
It goes like this: If the mind truly were non-physical, it could have no interactions with the physical world it finds itself embedded in. Our thoughts could then in no way influence our actions, perhaps not even our ability to realize we'd ever thought them (assuming awareness and memory themselves rely on physical changes in the brain).

That argument seems to have swept the field nowadays. And had done so even before Daniel Dennett set the seal to it with his 1991 book modestly entitled Consciousness Explained. Dan, incidentally, doesn't think he's conscious -- and he doesn't think you are either. In his "You Can't Argue with a Zombie" essay, Jaron Lanier happily (and hilariously) grants Dan the former point, though not the latter.

Be that as it may, the upshot has been that even those few philosophers still willing to take up the cudgels on behalf of the mind have felt compelled to paint themselves into one of two metaphysical corners: arguing either for "emergence" or for "epiphenomenalism."

Emergence is championed by, among others, John Searle, whose Chinese Room puzzle makes an appearance in Dualism. In his 1992 Rediscovery of the Mind, Searle posits that mind is an "emergent phenomenon" arising naturally from the activity of physical brains of a certain complexity, but then goes on to argue that, in consequence, consciousness itself is somehow qualitatively different from -- and hence not straightforwardly reducible to -- the physical substrate from which it arose. The signature metaphor for this species of emergence is water: the individual molecules of H2O don't exhibit properties like coolness or liquidity or the ability to slake thirst -- those all emerge at a macro-scale when masses of molecules are lumped together. Yet the metaphor also exposes its own limitations: "watery" characteristics may emerge from any arbitrary cluster of H2O molecules, but dumping a random batch of neurons in a pile hardly seems likely to yield consciousness. Evidently something else, something more structured, is called for.

Epiphenomenalists take an altogether different tack, as exemplified by David Chalmers in his 1996 landmark study The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. There, Chalmers argues for a (quasi-)immaterial mind -- either altogether non-physical in nature, or operating on new, as yet undiscovered physical principles -- but, in the process if so doing, simply accepts the above-mentioned physicalist objection regarding such a mind's inability to interact with the material world in any way. In the resulting view, our thoughts really cannot influence our, rather the two are simply kept in synch somehow. In other words, it's all just a lucky coincidence that, when I think about lifting my arm, lo and behold, my arm rises into the air.

(This view is somewhat reminiscent of the self-contained, non-interacting monads posited by the 17th century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz as the ultimate irreducible constituents of reality. The difference is that Leibnitz had God to fall back on, to make sure that everything synched up in the end -- an option unavailable to most contemporary philosophers.)

What drives philosophers like Searle and Chalmers to embrace -- even at the price of buying into such torturous reasoning -- the notion of the mental as not being straightforwardly reducible to the physical, is one simple fact.

A simple fact, which, however, just happens to be the primary fact of human existence: our subjective conscious experience -- a topic we'll take up in our next blogisode.