I’ve heard that later this month, Google’s Blogger will be discontinuing the FTP upload feature, which means my other two blogs, Stuff I Found and Book Quotes, will sadly have to come to an end. I could convert them to WordPress or move them to something.blogspot.com, but I think I will just kill them off, and integrate future posts that would’ve belonged to them into this blog here. It’s probably a better idea just to have everything in one place anyway, yes? So I shan’t be using Google Blogger ever again; it’s all WordPress from now on.
And now on to our regularly scheduled blog post. On page 24 of Daniel C. Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained, Dennett says:
Love is one of those phenomena that depend on their concepts, to put it oversimply for the time being. There are others; money is a clear instance. If everyone forgot what money was, there wouldn’t be any money anymore; there would be stacks of engraved paper slips, embossed metal disks, computerized records of account balances, granite and marble bank buildings — but no money: no inflation or deflation or exchange rates or interest — or monetary value. The very property of those variously engraved slips of paper that explains — as nothing else could — their trajectories from hand to hand in the wake of various deeds and exchanges would evaporate.
Basically I think he’s saying that things like money and love are things of the mind, concepts that come from the mind. How we act in relation to them is dependent on how we think of them, how we understand them. And we can disagree about our philosophies toward them, but there’s not some tangible non-psychological objective evidence in the outside world we can ever use as evidence to support our position. For other things, this is not true. The examples the author uses are diseases and earthquakes. Our understanding of those phenomena can and has changed through the years, but those phenomena remain the same. An earthquake doesn’t shake differently when you understand; but how you spend your money does change depending on how you understand it. Money’s very existence is dependent on our understanding of it.
Of course, the author is then planning to apply this concept to consciousness. Is consciousness more like love or an earthquake? The author will argue it’s more like love… but to me it seems a confusing question, and may require me to think differently about the concept. I’ve always thought of consciousness as a purely physical phenomena, right? What if love is understood as a purely physical phenomena, as an emergent property of chemicals moving around in the brain? Is love then like an earthquake?
The trouble is, creating this dividing line between things like love and money and things like earthquakes and diseases seems a bit fake. It’s like, there are these physical things that tangibly exist, and then there are concepts, emergent properties in the mind. Usually I’m OK with creating that dividing line, but consciousness sits right on it, it links the two. It leads to the philosophical questions of solipsism… everything you see, everything you feel, hear, sense, they are all physically in your mind… what is the nature of existence in general? It’s like asking on what side the dividing line is in relation to itself.
So I disagree with the author and would say that the question is invalid; it’s too oversimplified. Still, its implications are worth exploring, and oversimplifying may be necessary to get anywhere, so I’ll keep reading.
As I was reading this part of the book, I also thought, hmmmm, what about religion? Where would God fit into this? Is God like love or an earthquake?
Atheists and theists argue about whether or not God exists, but not about the nature of the existence of money (or at least don’t argue about it nearly as often). We don’t say that money isn’t real, though we do understand that it’s more a psychological concept than a tangible property of the world. We don’t say that money’s existence is relative to our beliefs, yet we have no problem in having different understandings of it.
Whether or not you believe in God, you’d probably believe that the nature of His existence doesn’t change with your beliefs, but how you act in life and towards God (or lack of God) and other people does depend on your beliefs.
So it’s like God is perpendicular to the dividing line between psychological concepts and tangible worldly concretes. Both theists and atheists treat the belief in God more like it’s an earthquake on some distant planet nobody can see, and that makes it like love, because that sort of understanding is all that’s left.
And then the question is: so what? What can we do with this way of thinking about the nature of the existence of God? Anything?
Perhaps understand that the dividing line itself doesn’t exist? That we are part of both understandings of the world, both psychological and physical beings, and, most importantly, that both understandings of the world are the same world? Can that understanding change the way we act?
Or, if you don’t feel like thinking about God, what about the nature of an objective difference between moral right and wrong? What about the nature of Truth itself?
Obviously, I don’t really know, and I’m really just confusing myself. Argh!
The author says on page 24 and 25:
If the concept of consciousness were to “fall to science,” what would happen to our sense of moral agency and free will? If conscious experience were “reduced” somehow to mere matter in motion, what would happen to our appreciation of love and pain and dreams and joy?
I am confident that these fears are misguided…
… let us remind ourselves of what has happened in the wake of earlier demystifications. We find no diminution of wonder; on the contrary, we find deeper beauties and more dazzling visions of the complexity of the universe than the protectors of mystery ever conceived.
Yes, yes, I agree, because I are smart. I’ve heard similar fears from composers and music lovers who think that if we could explain why we think certain melodies sound so beautiful then they might not sound beautiful anymore, as if the beauty is in the mystery of why it’s beautiful. A “we-murder-to-dissect” kinda thing, understanding it might kill the wonder of it. Nonsense! The only beauty I see in a mystery is born of the desire to solve it, to one day truly know.