Posts Tagged ‘free will’

I. Linguistics

Perhaps one reason we have a problem talking about consciousness from a materialist perspective is that we were never taught to do so.  Even our present conversations, though we may argue for the materialist’s case, are formed around methods of thinking/speaking (language games) that only take into account some form of Cartesian dualism.  For example: less than thirty minutes ago I found myself brushing my teeth before going to bed.  As I did this, I thought to myself, “I wonder whether I’m brushing my teeth because ‘I’ originated the thought to do so and acted accordingly (the ‘I’ here should be understood as implying top-down causation); or because all the training and instruction ‘I’ was given as a child, during my brain’s formative years, caused me to do so, and ‘I’ simply thought to myself, “I should brush my teeth now,” because that is the way my brain has been wired, by a community language game, to express the sequence of neurons that fire as a result of that early training (the “I” here should be understood to imply bottom-up causation).”  In other words, maybe our evolutionary upbringing doomed us to formulating our language games around metaphysical “objects” because when our ancestors’ brains were much smaller they could not have comprehended the materialist perspective, nor did they have the science to do so.  If the materialist perspective, instead of a metaphysical one, were the basis of our language games, we might, instead of thinking, “Wow, I’m glad I got that drink just now!” (as we would in metaphysical system), think, “My body was really in need of some liquid, and as a result of that need my brain signaled my body to reach for the cup of water within my reach and take a drink, this action triggered a reward response within my brain, and I’m only thinking this thought because those events occurred. ”

II. Consciousness and Materialism

The above statements leave one with an immense desire for an answer to the question of the nature of consciousness.  Consciousness is memory recall.  The strict materialist perspective states that all that exist are atoms.  (As with my last post, writing “atoms” is easier than trying to describe the sundry and complex sub-atomic machinery that make up our reality, but it is implied that only physical objects (matter) exist.)  The very fact that I can type and you can read this blog post are evidence that these atoms exist through some feature of Nature, our physics, that we call time.  As a result of this continuous, uni-directional motion “through” time, other “things” come into existence that can probably be best described as events.  Sound is an event.  It is the result of atomic interactions, and has no mass itself, but exists through time.  Star formation is an event.  It takes time, but we have discovered the method by which new stars are “born” in the universe.  Growth is an event.  It is a wonder of our physics that biological structures age over time, reproduce, and die.  Consciousness is also an event.

There are two miracles that have ever occurred.  The first is that the physics began and exist through time.  The second is that one result of a particular and specific application of those physics, over time, resulted in at least one biological creature that can reflect back on the physics and discover, possibly, how it came to be.

The wonder of biology is that there is a biology at all!  We were certainly not destined to be here!  But the fact is that there is biological life, and that such life evolved over time, driven by the changes in our planet’s geography, and that the evolution of such life resulted in me and you.  Remember, all that exist are atoms.  In order for mammalian creatures to have advanced to the level of complexity that the human body exhibits, those creatures must have had to interact with other members of their species in some type of community living arrangement.  This is required by reproduction, geography, and human brain size.  In order for those creatures to interact and arrange themselves in some type of community living arrangement, memory (event-storing) modules must have been in place in those creatures brains.  This is required, minimally, by facial/spousal recognition, and maximally, by language.  I take for granted here that perception alone, that is, the ability of the body to take in data from its exterior physics, is not enough for consciousness, for even flowers do that.  No, consciousness requires and begins with memory recall.  This makes the brain an even more miraculous contraption, for all that exist are atoms, and all that happen are events.

III. Objections

One immediate objection that I can think of to the above argument is that this presentation of the materialist perspective requires one to ascribe consciousness to much less complex biological creatures than humans.  Yes, but it is rather elitist to object in this way, is it not?  Perhaps it is the case that we want to restrict our definition of “conscious beings” to creatures that exhibit language, or any other trait that we so desire, but where we draw the boundary lines  for our definitions of “consciousness” and “language” are arbitrary anyway, and are hardly grounds for an objection of this sort.  Perhaps we need to accept that we are not so different from our animal relatives and acknowledge that many less complex forms of life may also experience some form of this mysterious consciousness.

Another objection, that only slightly weasles its way around the above rebuttal, is that consciousness should be defined as beginning with the ability to form a self-concept.  The above rebuttal still applies, but I should add that this objection also falls prey to what was addressed in, I. Linguistics, above.  Self-concept is a result of, at least, the human brain’s complex memory storage system and the language games it is programmed to use to express certain patterns of neuronal firings.  We only think in terms of “self-concepts” because we have been programmed to do so.

A third objection, which has been thought tenable within popular discourse, is that my entire perspective is flawed because a strictly materialist perspective cannot account for the physics of the universe.  This objection, as with all faith claims, cannot be deductively de-boned, but it is worth asking why we need metaphysical explanations for events when the same events can be described more accurately and in greater detail by physical explanations.

One last objection that really isn’t an objection, but more of a tough pill to swallow.  The above arguments imply and embrace a very strict determinism.  It is possible that every event that takes place in the universe is prone to a standard fluctuation in causal probabilities, but this comes nothing close to the “free will” that we think of when discussing Cartesian dualism.  A tough pill to swallow indeed.  But remember, there are two miracles that have taken place, so far, and “you” are lucky enough to be the benefactor of both of them.

Void damn the distance.

Note: Much of the content of this post was developed through conversations with Chris Schafer.  I am in his debt.

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