PROLOGUE: In writing this dialogue, I wish to explore the ongoing debate within the philosophical community over the nature of thought, consciousness, matter, free will, and all such related concepts. This is, quite obviously, an immense topic, so I will attempt to keep the dialogue focused, especially on the concepts of qualia, phenomenology, and emergence. That said, brief escapades into religious, existential, and scientific thought will surely arise, as it would be foolish to take the debate and its implications out of context.
The characters are as follows: Victoria, an overbearingly secular materialist; Phoebe, a demure philosopher wont to take up any side of the debate but hesitant to believe any conclusion; and Brooke, a dedicated dualist, but unsure of the actual, precise nature of Being. The setting is the parlor of Phoebe’s winter lodge in the mountains, the time is quite anachronistic—the language and maturity of debate imply the late scientific revolution era, but certain evidentiary data employed by the characters are from a much later date. Such a merger of antiquated etiquette and modern science and technology is classically referred to as “steampunk”, but that is neither here nor there. Onward!,
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION
BROOKE: […] you see then, Phoebe, the mind must be separate from the body! It is the only way in which these things may come to pass, our own experience confirms it.
PHOEBE: I simply will not and cannot take you at your word, Brooke. Your arguments at this moment do entice me, but, as certain as the tides, yet another will entreat me thusly ere the week be through. Words alone can do the subject no justice, I must conclude. Man is a fool to think he has power o’er the meand’ring follies of logic when approaching this matter. I--
BROOKE: --But do listen yourself, dear Phoebe! Clearly we are fools to think we have this thing concluded, but we must soldier onward. Most certainly we must. Indeed, this whole issue in and of itself seems evidence to me the very point which I wish to make clear: our minds, “spirits”, if you will, can see the picture clearly for what it is, yet they cannot communicate to this corporeal essence the complete logic of the thing. Petty details aside, do you not reach my same conclusion? That matter in and of itself simply cannot explain all that we experience, nay, cannot explain experience itself?
PHOEBE: It would seem, but I must maintain my reser—
VICTORIA: --And why, pray tell, can it not, Brooke?
PHOEBE: Victoria! Wonderful to see you again! What brings you to my humble lodgings?
VICTORIA: Why, the promise of this fine debate, of course. I would be a lesser person for having abstained from its luscious draw in the past, despite our momentary mutual ire immediately following. But now we have lost the train of the thing—Brooke, do explain!
BROOKE: I simply find it obvious, Victoria. The stones do not cry out, the tree does not ponder, even the lesser creatures do not concern themselves with the philosophical arguments and self-reflection which so dominate our thoughts. Dust is no source of feeling, and the dirt hath no consciousness—our minds are a precious commodity, rare in nature.
VICTORIA: You must see your error, Brooke. We are not stones, trees, or lesser creatures. Why should we expect them to think? We do not expect ourselves to be made of stone, grow leaves, or any other such qualities not becoming of a human being. We are unique, but it is no fault of anything other than the very arrangement of our molecules.
PHOEBE: But what, then, accounts for our experiences?
BROOKE: Yes, Victoria, what do you think of this thing called “qualia”?
VICTORIA: Explain if you would, please.
BROOKE: Well, the idea is that our experiences, our sensory data, have more than material considerations to it. The color red does more than simply transmit photons of a certain wavelength to our cornea, produce electrochemical reactions, and send a nerve impulse to our visual cortex where the information is processed and sent to the other parts of the brain as needed; there is a specific feeling and experience associated with this physical phenomena—one which cannot be explained materialistically.
PHOEBE: Here I am in agreement. We seem to know this intuitively: we speak of thoughts and feelings and emotions as completely separate concepts from our matter-based bodies. We have an idea of ourselves, our identity, not as a physical thing but as a thought-based entity, continuous through our physical maturation. Most every religion speaks of such concepts, be it a soul to be reincarnated or a pantheistic notion of oneness crossing material boundaries. Some are even wont to believe that we have no physical component at all, but are rather solely our thoughts!
BROOKE: But how so?
VICTORIA: What evidence do they have for such doubts? Why believe these religious convictions? Utter nonsense.
BROOKE: What evidence do you have for the existence of the material world, Victoria? Although I do believe its existence as well, I find no foolproof reasoning for it. Our belief in it is based on experience, and these experiences, to my eyes, carry as much weight as our experiences with the non-material nature of our thoughts.
VICTORIA: What if I should say that your intuitive belief of non-material thought is simply cultural conditioning? Or, perhaps more accurately, a by-product of a language in which the words for thoughts, feelings, and emotions carry spiritual connotations and definitions? What if we should have words which conveyed these mind-states for what I believe they are—electrochemical patterns in an extremely complicated neural network? You say that there is something more to these “qualia”, some “experience” which cannot be communicated or explained with physical means, but I simply take that to be the shortcomings of scientific understanding. Neuroscientists say that when they stimulate certain areas of the brain, they can make someone perceive “spiritual transcendence” or any number of similar mind-states.
BROOKE: But the fact that electrochemical states of the brain can cause qualia experiences is not what I intend to question—indeed, my position requires it to be true. Otherwise, how would day to day phenomena ever affect our consciousness? The point I wish to make is that these experiences seem to be acting on a specific entity, continuous agent, which is receptacle to these qualia. But it would seem that my words even now can do it no justice. Perchance the idea of qualia is in and of itself a qualia, which I can no more communicate to you than you can communicate sight to the blind or sound do the deaf.
PHOEBE: As all knowledge seems to be, in my opinion. Language is but a hopeless attempt at communicating our beliefs with antiquated measures. Would that we all spoke in qualia.
BROOKE: Yes indeed. Anyway, Victoria, you must not mistake me for some old-fashioned dualist which derives all conclusions from religious conviction. I do see the importance of the material side of the issue. Indeed, I believe the “spirit” or “mind” to be fundamentally connected to and intertwined with the physical body to which it is ascribed.
VICTORIA: Ah yes, I was thinking of raising this point myself. It is good to hear that you do not ascribe to that ridiculous notion of a spiritual substance which resides above and beyond our world. Such ideas are foolishness.
PHOEBE: Why would you believe that, Victoria?
VICTORIA: There is no evidence for it, again! Ockham would be appalled.
PHOEBE: Once more we arrive at this conundrum. You seem to imply you have definitive evidence for the physical world where I can find none! But we will not go down that road again, believe you me. Instead think of my objection in this context: why would there not seem to be something above the physical world? If, indeed, the immaterial cannot interact with the material, we would see no evidence for it in our physical experience, so the absence of substantive evidence is quite the logical result. But of course that would have no effect on us, so we may consider it an inop’rable conclusion. Instead, we may consider that this nonmaterial substance only can causally interact with the physical world through the intuitive means of mind-body interaction.
VICTORIA: And what is this intuitive means? Physics quite strongly dictates that the only the physical can affect the physical. From whence arises this interaction?
PHOEBE: I do not know.
VICTORIA: Well then, I--
BROOKE: --Victoria, you raise a valid point: causal interaction between the material and immaterial seems nigh upon impossible, but what do you say to the concept of emergent consciousness and of “property dualism”?
VICTORIA: Oh, well, please do explain!
BROOKE: The idea is generally postulated as follows: that the properties of the mind, while completely reliant upon their material substrates, are irreducible to any specific aspect of these parts and must be treated as in their own category. In other words, the mind is more than the sum of its parts, and is not immaterial in the substance sense.
VICTORIA: I am intrigued, but hesitant to agree completely. Please do continue.
BROOKE: Well, truth be told, there are numerous different ways of phrasing the concept, each with its own specific connotations along with unique flaws and advantages. My personal preference is for that of, as I have already stated, emergent consciousness. I would argue that the specific arrangement of atoms and molecules to make up our neural pathways are so designed that, from their interactions, a “mind” emerges.
VICTORIA: I still do not quite understand. What do you mean, a “mind”? What do you mean, “emerges”? Because phrased as such one could take your statement to imply my original point: that our perceived consciousness is no fault of anything other than the very arrangement of our molecules.
BROOKE: Well, that point I must disagree with, so let me attempt to explain precisely. I guess I would say that each area of the brain is mapped to another area of thought or experience, such that the brain is the originator of all thought and emotion, but the specific thoughts and emotions which occur are not of the brain, but of the mind.
VICTORIA: I do not see the need for this mind to enter the picture, although I admit this concept is still infinitely more attractive to me than the other types of dualism you have presented in the past.
BROOKE: Again we return to my insistence upon a mind. I believe that the evidence for such a thing is unmistakable, but we have exhausted that topic most thoroughly, and will gain no further ground on it until one of us can think of a bridge between our two opinions. Perhaps this will serve as the bridge: it is typically called the “Chinese Room experiment”.
In one room, there sits a man with a massive book. In this book, every possible arrangement of Chinese characters is entered, and a consequent “response” is also listed. There is a slot in the wall of the room, through which another person will pass sheets of paper with Chinese characters inscribed upon them. The man with the book will look up the phrase given to him, and reply with the appropriate series of characters. To the person who first gave him the note, it would seem that this man is fluent in Chinese! However, we as an outside observer know that the man with the book has no idea what he’s reading or writing—he has simply been given an instruction manual which he follows precisely. We would never in our wildest imagination say that he understands Chinese. This dichotomy, between understanding and action, highlights the importance of consciousness to our very definition of understanding.
PHOEBE: In much the same way, we can imagine a person who acts functionally exactly the same as any other human, but has no consciousness or awareness of what he is doing. A veritable zombie walking among us!
BROOKE: Precisely. Once we see this concept of understanding as a distinct idea, the holes in materialism begin to appear.
VICTORIA: I am beginning to see it now, though I am wary. Would you then argue that intelligence and consciousness are inherent properties of matter? That any set of molecules can be rearranged such that they have a consciousness? That marble can be made flesh, and dust to spirit?
PHOEBE: I do not think so.
BROOKE: I, too, am hesitant to make such a conclusion.
VICTORIA: Well, I am still insistent upon that point. How, then, do you account for the fact that each of the atoms in your body is replaced constantly, such that you are never numerically identical even to yourself as you pass through time? It would seem that any old atom will do, so long as it retains its arrangement.
PHOEBE: Indeed, I believe that this only supports my refusal to say that the mind arises completely from matter, even given our new concept of emergence. It would seem that there must be something more to the issue; that there is some part of the mind which is separate, not affected by physical changes. What it would be, a God, a soul, or something else entirely, I daren’t even begin to postulate.
BROOKE: I do not know either. I do not wish to cement myself in one position before considerable thought. If I am to accept a substance-based dichotomy between matter and mind, as I was wont to do in my early days, then we arrive at the issue of causal relatedness. If I instead rely on property dualism, it is quite difficult indeed not to concede myself entirely to physicalism, but dread physicalism ignores all of my a priori and a posteriori concepts of consciousness, understanding, and qualia.
PHOEBE: Perchance the best hope is to return to substance dualism, but ignore the issue of causal relatedness?
PHOEBE: What if you simply allow for the fact that the mind cannot affect the matter? That our experiences are properties of our minds, but the immaterial, as Victoria says, does not return the favor and affect the material
BROOKE: Well, then, what about how the material can affect the immaterial? It would seem that the same conundrum presents itself.
PHOEBE: So it does.
BROOKE: Of course, one can just postulate that the mind is of a particular substance such that it can interact with, i.e. act on and be acted upon, the material? To explain in a more plausible way, that the brain is one particular organ that has that possibility, accounting for the ways in which brain states can affect thought processes and vice versa?
VICTORIA: You can’t possibly be returning to substance dualism! For shame!
BROOKE: Forsooth, you are correct, Victoria: the beast continues to have its flaws. But it would seem that all do. Moving onward, I believe that if one finds the right way of defining property dualism, then we may satisfy all issues.
VICTORIA: Or just accept that qualia are illusory…
BROOKE: Have you listened to none of my arguments for it?
VICTORIA: And you none of mine?
PHOEBE: Indeed, you each argue well. But return to the idea at hand!
BROOKE: Certainly. Upon reflection, I believe that it is that concept which will be the saving grace of my predicament: ideas. What constitutes an idea? How is an idea stored in the brain? If one attempts to explain an idea in terms of physical states of matter, something is obviously lost. Above and beyond this lossy conversion, consider that this idea can be stored in countless of brains, each with a different structure, in handwritten documents, electronic programs, differing languages, perchance even in art! What, then, makes this infinitely variable physical arrangement of atoms constitute the same entity? Here we see emergence: abstraction. Contained within each of these things is an immaterial concept, one which is all but independent of its physical grounding. It cannot exist without its material basis, yet it is not the matter in and of itself which makes it what it is, just as it is not the brain which defines the mind, yet the mind requires a brain to exist. As this information is transferred between media, it can modulate in minutia, but remains ontologically irreducible. These variances in minutia can, in many ways, cause the meme to evolve and perfect itself, in a manner which could almost be mistaken for an external will, as is often mistakenly perceived in evolution. In other words, when the concept is read, thought about, and rewritten, it will have, in essence “altered” its physical makeup. In this way, the mind can also alter the physical actions of the brain—the mind, by receiving conceptual data, thinking about it, and resending it to the realm of physical properties, can affect the matter! I believe that this free will is not mistakenly perceived, but that is a debate for a different day entirely […]
EPILOGUE: Clearly, these formulations of young minds are far from perfection. However, I believe between the lines and between the characters, some minutia of truth resides. Clearly, Victoria represents a repentant Diderot (read backwards as “Tory did”, leading to Victoria), one who believes firmly in the materialist explanation of all reality, but is willing to at least accept other possibilities for the sake of debate. Phoebe, then, is a young Princess Elizabeth (“theba…” easily becomes “Phoebe”), doubting Descartes’ insistence upon causal interaction between mind and matter, but ever hungry for new ways of accounting for dualism’s allure. Brooke (from my own middle name) is the moderator between the voracious materialist and the doubtful dualist: she is fairly certain of her convictions, yet moderates them with a knowledge of her own lack of knowledge, and thusly treads bravely the thin alley of overlap between substance dualism and materialism. Brooke, representing most accurately my feelings on the issue, sees an immaterial world as inherent twin of the material world, and is convinced of the limits of human knowledge as not a hindrance upon thought, but rather a tool which can be used to invoke the necessity of something above and beyond what lies before us. As Brooke says in her conclusion of the dialogue, ideas continue beyond their origins in a manner which defies material constraint, and I hope that the ideas I have encoded into this document may spread and evolve to new minds, fertile with want of knowledge. Thank you for reading.