The Making of a Thriller, Part II: Mind Games

So, as Part I of this “Making of a Thriller” blog series (see below) 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 origins back to the beginnings of philosophy itself, having first been raised by Plato: In his “allegory of the cave” (Republic, Book VII), Plato held that — far from encompassing all of reality — the material things we see all around us are mere shadows of 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 17th-century mathematician and philosopher 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 took 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 owns an independent existence 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 worldview.

Even so, such root-and-branch materialism does have a trump card to play and, in Dualism, Nietzsche (the novel’s AI character, not the German philosopher of the same name) 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. Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality, begs to differ. His “You Can’t Argue with a Zombie”, while happily (and hilariously) granting Dan the benefit of the doubt on the former point, staunchly refutes the latter.

Be all 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 laws — but, in the process of so doing, simply accepts the above-cited 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 actions, 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 cost 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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Writing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *