Saturday, October 1, 2016

My Question To David Chalmers And Rebecca Goldstein On Consciousness

Late last year I attended several events hosted by Robert Wright on philosophy, science, and religion and I got to see some world renowned speakers, including Lawrence Krauss and Steven Pinker. In one event, called The Weirdness of Consciousness, Wright interviewed David Chalmers and Rebecca Goldstein about how and why an understanding of consciousness still seems to allude both scientists and philosophers.

Chalmers is an NYU philosopher specializing in the philosophy of mind. He came up with the term "the hard problem of consciousness" back in the 90s. Goldstein is an author and philosopher who has written extensively about consciousness and science. During the Q&A I asked them whether there is any good evidence that the mind "causes" the brain because it seems to me that all the evidence shows the opposite. And I wasn't quite happy with their responses. (I almost had a brain fart in the middle of my question because I forgot the last part I wanted to mention, but it eventually came out.)

So Chalmers basically says that it seems prima facie that both mind and brain cause each other but that it's admittedly difficult to reckon mind causing brain with physics and neuroscience. Goldstein then jumps in and tells an anecdote about being hooked up to an fMRI while being asked to solve mathematical equations and place money on bets as part of research for one of her books and says that the latest in neuroscience is compatible with any theory on mind, including dualism. Though she admits she's a materialist, she says given all the scientific evidence that "it's still wide open."

So here are my thoughts on their responses. I agree with Chalmers that it does seem prima facie that our minds cause our brains and vice versa and that it's hard to reconcile the interaction of the mind causing the brain given our current understanding of physics. But I'd say that our current understanding of physics does rule out mind causing brain. We fully understand the way atoms behave in the every day realm (which includes our brains) and we fully understand all the relevant forces governing them and there is no room for a mind force to push those atoms without overcoming the existing forces in the Standard Model (which would violate quantum mechanics), or to account for this mind force within the Standard Model. So I think physics indeed has ruled out dualistic interactionism full stop. (I am definitely going to need to write about this more. In fact, I plan on making a formal argument on it relatively soon.)

Regarding Goldstein's response, she fails to mention that all the studies involving fMRI show the brain correlation happening before the reported conscious awareness. This is not compatible with dualistic interactionism — which if true would have to produce a consistent narrative in neuroscience of conscious awareness coming before the brain correlation at the very least, and not the other way around, which we always see. So two lines of evidence from science — one from physics, and one from neuroscience — indicate there is no mind stuff that causally interacts with the physical world.

And what bothers me is that both Goldstein and Chalmers are experts in this field. Perhaps because the event was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, a religious non-profit that often tries to blur the lines between science and religion, the panelists found the need to not be too dismissive of the religious realm. I talked with Chalmers afterwords and he's privy to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. He thinks it's likely that the mind is fundamental and that it not only can cause the physical, it creates physical reality. He's also privy to panpsychism, the view that all of nature is embedded with consciousness. And he also thinks materialism is false, though he's not necessarily a god believer. So it may be the case that they're both honest and really do think the jury is still out on whether mind causes brain. There are smart people who disagree with my view on consciousness as there are on almost any subject matter, but I personally think it's pretty clear what side most of the evidence lies on, and I think any honest investigator should see this. 

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