The Other I

July 26, 2010

The mind-body problem

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:49 pm

The mind-body problem has been written about by great minds for at least a couple of thousand years.  I’ve read some, understood a few, and failed to read even some of the best on the subject.

I think I understand the problem in psychology, though, if not the solution.

The fundamental question asks where thought comes from.  How does the mind work that it produces what seem to be immaterial thoughts, some times about things we have never experienced or that aren’t even remotely possible?

For the sake of getting off first base, scientists (including me and most everybody else most of the time) assume that the physical world actually exists independently of our thinking about it.  In other words, we distinguish between our thoughts about a thing and the thing itself.  We don’t usually think of our plans, or our dreams as reflecting concrete objective reality.   But we do think of the world we experience in our waking hours as real.

Those real things include everything from gluons to galaxies, from pepples to people, from electrons to elephants.  They are all material, all made up of matter.  But a thought doesn’t seem to be made up of matter.

In this life, at least, thought does depend on the matter of which our brain is made.  But what is a thought itself made of?  How do the operations of the material world produce a seemingly immaterial thought?

There are three popular alternatives, none of which is totally satisfactory:

One is that living organisms have souls which are immaterial and are the source both of life and the capacity to think.  The predominant religious view is that the human soul is created by God with the beginning of each life, and that it will never die.

The difficulty for scientists with the Soul Solution is that it cannot be subjected to scientific proof or analysis.

Scientific reductionism takes a second position – that thought is no more than the operations of the brain itself, with its multiplicity of  feedback loops and incredibly complex and rapid functions.  Modern brain research has made huge advances identifying parts of the brain where various functions are supported.  We know where short-term memories are encoded, for instance, or what part of the brain supports various senses like vision and hearing.  The mapping of the brain through MRI’s is telling us almost daily about how the brain functions.

The limitation of this position, however, is that scientists are unable to identify the content of even the simplest thought.  We can often make a good guess.   Even a very very good guess.  If the relevant part of the brain fires after hearing a particular word, it is a good guess that the person heard that word and responded to it.  But we still have no direct access to the person’s private consciousness.  So it is possible that the word was misunderstood and the response was really to a different word.  The problem is compounded for more sophisticated thought processes.  Scientists could not guess from watching MIR read-outs, for instance, the content of an author’s thought if he were asked to think about how he intended to develop the next six chapters of his current novel in process.

Looking at the question from the other side, we run into a similar difficulty.  We have built complex computers that can solve many of the same kinds of problems we can.  They even produce what we call “artificial intelligence ” and computers are often much faster and more accurate than we are.  But all this computer complexity does not seem to have produced computer consciousness.  Although, since consciousness is a private experience, it is possible that computers do experience consciousness or thought as we do.  But if so, we still don’t know how a computer produces consciousness akin to ours when it is plugged in and turned on.

The third alternative is the possibility hinted at by Gestalt psychology, and which is reflected in what some biologists today call the emergence of agency.  This view sees mind as a phenomenon arising out of the operations of the natural world in which we live.   Mind has evolved as naturally as have vision to see with and wings to fly with.

This point of view agrees with the reductionists that the mind is natural, but argues that when a new organization emerges, something more than the sum total of the parts now exists on both the physiological level of brain functions and on the psychological level of experience.  This new organization then operates with an additional set of laws.  The basic laws of physics are not violated, but they are insufficient to describe or predict the totality of the new organization.  Biologists, then, for instance, develop additional laws for living organisms which add to the fundamental laws of physics.

This third position also has its limitations.  We still do not know how the mind seems to produce apparently immaterial thought through the operations of a physical body.

Einstein’s simple equation, Emc2, offers a tantalyzing possibility.

Well tantalizing for people like me who somehow find questions like these as engrossing as what to have for dinner tonight.

Nonetheless, I dare say I’d now best address this latter problem imminently and save Einstein for another post.


  1. Thanks for explaining these three alternatives.

    I think I’ve begun to see why we sometimes miss each other.

    I’m not sure I really see the difference between (2) scientific reductionism and (3) emergence of agency. Is the difference literally that (3) posits that the ‘new organization then operates with an additional set of laws’ which did not apply at the ‘lower’ level?

    Would an example of such laws be the principles of natural selection, which only really apply in the context of entities which replicate, mutate and compete for resources?

    And would a (2)-type reductionist be committed to the view that the ‘laws’ of natural selection would have to be somehow deducible from the ‘lower-level’ laws of mathematics, physics and chemistry – even if we don’t yet know how to do it? Whereas a (3)-type Gestalt theorist would be committed to the view that the laws of natural selection could not in principle be deduced from the laws of mathematics, physics and chemistry?

    Presumably (2)-type reductionism can only be ‘proved’ piecemeal – ie once we have a satisfactory deduction of a set of ‘emergent’ laws from a set of ‘base’ laws, then (2)-type reductionism is proved for that context?

    And (3)-type Gestalt emergent agency theory would also only admit of piecemeal ‘proof’ – by some kind of theorem which demonstrates that a particular set of emergent laws cannot be deduced from any subset of the ‘base’ laws we have?

    But if that (ie the latter) is true, then the individual proof could only be provisional, because it may be that we haven’t yet got all the relevant ‘base’ laws?

    I have a feeling I’m looking at this too simplistically, but as you probably know I’ve always struggled to understand what ‘reductionism’ is and isn’t!

    Thanks again,


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — July 28, 2010 @ 5:56 am | Reply

    • Chris – Thank you. Yes, natural selection is a perfect example of what the third alternative is saying. It does not violate the laws of physics, but could not be predicted or fully explained by the laws of physics alone.

      Also yes, the traditional fully-fledged reductionist would be committed to ultimately showing how natural selection is somehow deducible from the �lower-level� laws of mathematics, physics and chemistry. I haven’t read enough to fully understand, but there are some theorists who believe that it has already been proved mathematically that some aspects of reality are unpredictable from these basic laws.

      If that is so, then it is not always a question of proving things on higher levels in a “piece meal fashion.” Although, of course, I think all scientists would agree that we should always choose the simplest explanation – ie at the lowest level – that is available. I don’t see that as a point of contention, do you?

      “Is that the only difference,” you ask, between the second and third alternatives? I have only recently begun to re-acquaint myself with some of the more up-to-date thinking in this area, and from what I have read so far, I think this difference has been substantially amplified. I find some of the ideas quite interesting, but I am not yet sure I agree. For instance, does the fundamental inability to predict the new orders which are constantly emerging come from an essential creative thrust in nature? (It’s an intriguing possibility that nonetheless would make me nervous in the hands of fundamentalist religions.)

      Part of my difficulty is that when I’m reading in my own field, I can almost always recognize the basic assumptions an author is making and put the conclusions s/he draws within perspective. I find it more difficult to know in physics and biology if an author is representative of mainstream thinking, or if he is perceived as a maverick who may in some way be distorting the data. Which is why so far I have mostly steered clear of amplifying the “emergent agency” position and stuck to the basics of presented by Gestalt theorists.

      Besides that, when I’m trying to assess an issue as basic as this, I’m much more comfortable hearing both sides of an argument before feeling confident about my own perspective. That is one of the things that makes your perspective so valuable for me.

      One of the things that also makes it so refreshing is that, whether you are asking a question or responding to one of mine, you inevitably seem to know what I am talking about.

      And so, once again, thank you.


      Comment by theotheri — July 28, 2010 @ 7:37 pm | Reply

      • I’ve just thought of another way of expressing my confusion about reductionism.

        I could imagine being asked what I actually thought about, say, the mechanics of living organisms. And being told I had to say what side I came down on right now, despite the obvious possibility I could be very wrong.

        I would have to say I think that living organisms – including ourselves – are, ultimately, intricate machines, in that they – and we – obey the same laws the rest of the physical universe obeys.

        So I think that a living organism is ultimately ‘reducible’ in this sense. But because of the way it is constructed it can reproduce with variation, and therefore it is a part of a population which evolves following the principles of natural selection.

        And this is where the question of predictability comes in.

        Once you get to a level of evolving populations of living organisms, the way those populations will evolve is not predictable. Reductionism at the ‘mechanical’ level of the individual organism does not therefore imply overall determinism.

        I am not in any way implying that natural selection is the only kind of ‘jump’ between levels. There could be others, eg in nerve function, perception etc. Nor am I implying I have any idea how this jump between levels happens, ie whether it’s to do with complexity and/or chaos and/or real versus unreal numbers etc.

        Does that make me a qualified reductionist? (Don’t you love English? ‘Qualified reductionist’ can mean the exact opposite of what I want it to mean – as can ‘unqualified reductionist’!…)

        Thanks, Chris.


        Comment by Chris Lawrence — August 7, 2010 @ 8:43 am | Reply

        • Chris – Thank you for your comment – which I both appreciate and enjoyed.

          This will no doubt break your heart, but I am sorry to tell you that you have not qualified as a reductionist. Actually, you might be surprised to hear me say this, but I strongly suspect Richard Dawkins isn’t a reductionist either. Nothing that I have ever read of his leads me to think that he has locked himself into a purely reductionist position. He just doesn’t like the god-hypothesis.

          Of late, however, definitions of reductionism have been the subject of some debate. That’s why I so often refer to “traditional reductionism,” and keep on defining it on almost every post I’ve written on the subject. Actually, by some definitions I am reading lately, both of us would qualify as reductionists. If reductionism is defined as the view that all events in the universe are the result of natural laws (rather than merely the laws of physics) and not the result of intervention by any superior being from beyond the universe, then I am a reductionist through and through.

          I had the good fortune of being introduced to the question of reductionism in graduate school as a strictly scientific, not a religious, question. At that time, I rejected reductionism. I did not accept the validity of using faith to reject scientific findings on the grounds that they do not fit with my religious beliefs. But I also did not – and do not – accept the validity of science rejecting the reality of consciousness or any other phenomenon on the grounds that reductionism says it cannot be a valid phenomenon in its own right.

          What I am learning now is that even on the level of physics, some scientists are reaching the conclusion that reductionism is incomplete. Oxygen and hydrogen, for instance, as separate entities, do not wholly explain, let alone predict, the behaviour of water. There is also the fascinating problem of broader predictability to which you allude. The reductionist model fails almost totally when it comes to predicting events on higher levels.

          It looks to me as if reductionism provides a fantastic analytical tool. But it fails terribly at prediction. Eg: the credit crunch. Or the current floods in Pakistan. Or climate change. Or the internet. Or the course of evolution. Etc.

          What do you think?

          Thank you again for such a rewarding comment.


          Comment by theotheri — August 7, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

  2. [This is a response to: Comment by theotheri — August 7, 2010 @ 8:18 pm]

    I’ll probably be repeating myself, but I think ‘traditional’ reductionism fails because it over-reaches itself. It goes beyond what we actually know – it pretends we know more than we know.

    I think it is reasonable to think that a living organism (and therefore a human) ‘works’ in more or less the same way that a man-made machine ‘works’. It is reasonable to think there doesn’t have to be anything special that a living organism has that a man-made machine could not in principle have. We do not actually know of any reason why the living organism must have this ‘extra something’.

    But nor does this mean that this apparent ‘extra something’ (creativity? will to live?) must be an essential property of matter and/or ‘matter-energy’, which hitherto we had been blind to.

    Our knowledge about matter and energy and machines is scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is based on, and employs, an overall model of causality. It also proceeds by making and testing predictions. Science therefore both discovers and creates a domain of events and categories of events within which relationships of causation and prediction obtain.

    (I say ‘discovers and creates’ because, in the case of science, to discover more of the domain is to create more of the domain, and to create more of the domain is to discover more of the domain. In the context of scientific knowledge, discovery and creation come to the same thing.)

    We are not justified in saying that outside that domain is a special world of things and events which obey special laws or which must have special mysterious essences. We are only justified in saying there are things and events, or aspects of things and events, which have not yet been connected by relationships of causation and/or prediction and/or (we should now add) mathematical patterning. To say ‘not yet’ is not to say it is only a matter of time. Of something currently outside the domain we do not know if it will one day be included in the domain, or if it will never be included in the domain.

    There is also (I think!) the mathematics of prediction. Hard science relies on exact numbers. Scientific theory A is established because it predicts (among other things) that, say, x units of B will decompose into y units of C in time t. But if x and/or y and/or t cannot be exactly expressed, because their values are irrational or imaginary numbers, then prediction itself may not be what we intuitively think it is. (I’m well over the edge of memory, knowledge & understanding here – I wish I could remember where I read about this explanation of the limit to predictability: but I can remember being very impressed at the time!)

    Perhaps safer is the example of the evolution of complex features by natural selection. We can assume for the sake of argument that living organisms themselves are ‘purely mechanistic’, in the way that intricate man-made machines are. And that they exist in (and as) populations, in competition with each other and with other populations of other living organisms. And that they have genetic material which mechanistically determines their development, in combination with environmental factors, which also operate mechanistically. (‘Mechanistically’ here is shorthand for ‘including only those causalities which could also be generated by and/or operate on non-living objects’.) And we can assume random mechanically-produced variation in that genetic material.

    With assumptions like these, current evolutionary theory says that complex features will evolve. Does this mean those complex features themselves could have been predicted?

    Let’s say statement S = ‘Given an appropriate set of biological assumptions, then complex features p, q and r could have been predicted’.

    I think our current understanding is that we do not know if S is true.

    So we can have a ‘reductionist’ understanding of (say) an individual biological organ or organism as being viewable as an intricate physical mechanism. But this doesn’t commit us to a completely ‘determinist’ picture of how the living world got to be the way it is – where ‘determinist’ entails predictability by definition.

    I wish I knew more about this stuff!

    Thanks again, Chris.


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — August 14, 2010 @ 10:52 am | Reply

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