Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Nightmares and Eternity

It’s right behind you. You’re running as fast as you can. But not fast enough. It sinks its foul teeth into your neck. You scream, but you cannot. You wake up. It was only a nightmare.

“What do you mean only a nightmare,” you should ask. Wasn’t the horror real? Surely the cold sweat proves that at least some part of you was in terrible torment moments before waking. But as soon as you see that it isn’t real, it’s better. The memory may linger, but the suffering is gone.

I’m not quite sure why it’s better when you wake up. For other things where the ‘suffering is gone,’ like a past trauma, it’s certainly possible for it not to be better. But nightmares, where you have experienced horrific losses, embarrassments, and died many times over, don’t often have the same sort of power.

I don’t know the mechanism, but I know the effect. In the presence of reality, that which is ethereal passes away as unimportant. Perhaps this is what happens in Eternity. Suffering really happened, as nightmares did, but it doesn’t matter anymore.

In the Lord of the Rings, Sam has this feeling at the end of the book; when he sees Gandalf he asks, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” I think the answer is, “Yes.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Self and Its Brain

We had a lecture today on “Neuroethics,” and the topic of dualism was briefly touched on, but in a manner which was rather disturbing.

Dualism, as described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) is, “…the theory that the mental and the physical — or mind and body or mind and brain — are, in some sense, radically different kinds of thing.” This is the view that has been traditionally held by the majority of people, and the view that most easily allows one to believe in an immortal soul (so obviously favored by religious folks through the ages). At least it’s a valid theory, right?

Well, not according to what we learned today in lecture.

"The whole universe of your perceptions, your thoughts, your actions, your intentions, your motives your purposes, it's neurons giving off and taking up packets of neurotransmitters, and that's pretty much all there is...The “I” that they experience is really just dopamine and serotonin and other stuff being given off and picked up, and ions going in and ions coming out.... There's certainly no scientific evidence for dualism, for the idea that there's a little homunculus someplace, incorporeal, not physical, that somehow through some magical method connects to your brain, but that it is you and your brain isn't. Your mind, as far as we can tell, is what your brain does."

The strength of the rejection was jarring. I thought it was a legitimate theory. Nope. It’s “some magical method.” But because of the strength of rejection, I was forced to second-guess myself. So I did a bit of research. Who supported it?

I did not expect what I found. Beyond the usual suspects who are way too smart to count for anything (people like Aristotle, Augustine, Plato, Aquinas, Descartes), dualism found support among a very impressive list of scientists and philosophers in the twentieth century. There are strong supporters even in Neuroscience itself.

And I’m not talking about fringe characters. I’m talking about people who laid the foundations of neuroscience. A dualist (Sherrington) won the Nobel Prize for "discoveries regarding the functions of neurons” in 1932. I’d say neurons are pretty important to neuroscience. A decade later, Sherrington wrote a book called “Man on his Nature” expressing dualism. Another dualist named Eccles got the Nobel Prize in 1963 for figuring out how synapses worked and then went on to defend dualism the rest of his life. Later in his life, he worked with a famous philosopher of science, Karl Popper. Popper was hugely influential in our modern understanding of science (he introduced the idea of science having to be ‘falsifiable’). Popper and Eccles published, “The Self and its Brain” in 1977 defending dualism.

It’s hard for me to imagine a better list of advocates for my position: the most important philosopher of science last century, the guy who discovered neurons, and the guy who figured out synapses. Of course there are others. Jeffry Schwartz, a Psychiatrist at UCLA is treating people with OCD according to the philosophy that the mind is not just the brain. Roger Penrose, a giant in mathematical physics, argues for the inadequacy of physics to explain consciousness. Daniel Robinson, a brilliant scholar trained both in philosophy and neuroscience (and who co-authored a book with Eccles), speaks and writes extensively on this topic.

If such brilliant people support it, why is there such opposition? Robinson offers one possible reason, “It would be naive to ignore one fundamental difference between that world [of Sherrington] and the present: the gargantuan monetary stakes and associated perquisites on offer to those who can make and keep the brain sciences big science. There is so much of all this to go round that even philosophers of the right sort stand to gain.” In other words, you can get huge grants to investigate ‘the neurological cause of crime,’ only so long as crime is a brain state. If human responsibility exists beyond the brain, you can’t study it with expensive fMRI machines.

Are all modern philosophers against dualism? According to SEP, the answer is ‘No’: “Amongst mainstream philosophers, discontent with physicalism led to a modest revival of property dualism in the last decade of the twentieth century.” So I am satisfied. If I looked around on my side and saw nobody (as was suggested was the case by our lecturer today), I would be concerned. But indeed the case is reversed. On this philosophical question, I have all on my side but most modern scientists and some philosophers, whose views are severely biased by preexisting commitments to Materialism and money. Even the agnostic founders of neuroscience agree with me. Indeed, as the SEP entry on dualism describes, “although dualism has been out of fashion … the argument is by no means over.”

- Most of my references come from here.