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Posts Tagged ‘Dennett’

Mirroring the Light

Mirroring the Light

A pure heart is as a mirror . . .

In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love . . . .

Bahá’u’lláh: The Seven Valleys (page 21) & Persian Hidden Words No. 3

I want to deal with only two more complex issues. Both of them stem from our experience of what might be our soul. The two quotations from Bahá’u’lláh give us a sense of what those issues might be. These posts could go on for a while yet!

The Mirror and the Garden

The first issue is to do with how we can feel there is an infinity inside us and how that relates to the ability of our mind to watch itself. We will be talking a lot about mirrors, hearts and minds later.

The second issue is one that Dennett raises which needs to be addressed more closely than I did last time. He states that the brain is a parallel processor of great complexity and that serial consciousness is what computing people would call virtual not real: in simple terms the more complicated parallel processor underneath, which can do lots of things at once (‘Not a man, then!’ did you say?), fakes our experience of thinking one thing at a time in a time-line.

Guy Claxton deals with much the same issue by using the analogy of interconnected octopuses to describe the brain’s complexity. Both

Octopus

Octopus

agree, as I do (and Jonathan Haidt as well in his elephant and rider metaphor), that the brain, whether or not we have a soul, can do an awful lot of complicated things without our feeling anything at all and can go its own way in spite of us sometimes.

This is the issue that will involve us in talking about gardens as way of describing hearts and minds. We will be exploring whether the relationship between our conscious mind and the rest of our mind is rather like the relationship between gardeners and their gardens. You will have to bear, more than you usually do, with my limitations here: my hands-on experience of gardening is derived only from the deckchair.

In the end I hope to use all this to shed light on whether I have a soul and whether my will is free.

Mind and Brain

We have to get some basic stuff out of the way first before we tackle the fascinating surfaces of our mind’s mirrors and the fertile depths of our heart’s gardens.

I ended the previous post wondering what it is like to experience my soul. I hinted that there is something about our inner experience, something with which we are all very familiar, which might just be the end of a piece of string that is tied to our soul, the experience of soul in consciousness if you like.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, along with therapies like Psychosynthesis as well as Existentialist writers and millenia of meditators, have all homed in on the one same remarkable capacity of our minds. I can look into my own mind and watch it: we can reflect. I can see the contents of my consciousness passing through my mind. ‘Oh look!’ I can say to myself, ‘There’s a feeling of anger. There’s a thought about fish and chips. Oh, and there goes a plan to go shopping tomorrow.’ I think we all know what that feels like already or can at least confirm that we can do it with just a small amount of effort: we can separate our consciousness from its contents.

How do we do that though and what does it mean?

Some say it’s a by-product of language. That’s the A.C.T. explanation. “I speak therefore I can talk as though I am watching my mind.’ Others dress up their explanatory bankruptcy in fancier ways. ‘It’s an epiphenomenon of the brain’s complexity.’ Epiphenomenon means by-product. It also is used to indicate that this ability is accidental and pointless: all the really important stuff is going on underneath where the neurons are firing. ‘I’ve got more connections in my brain than atoms in the universe, so I think my mind can watch itself, ha, ha! It’s got no idea what’s going on.’

Some are more charitable. “Well, when you get complex systems you do sometimes get an emergent property that’s more than the sum of its parts.’ Consciousness and self-reflection would fall into this category. ‘My brain’s so complicated it’s better than its bits so I really can watch my mind working. More than that, my mind can change the brain as well as being affected by the brain.’

Now that really is something.

It either demonstrates an emergent property or suggests that the mind and brain might be different kinds of stuff. It really does happen as well. For instance, wiring a very antisocial late-teenager’s head (i.e. late meaning 18 or 19, but not dead yet or behind time in this case!) to a feedback machine, so he could learn how to increase the activity of the frontal lobes which control impulsive behaviour, led to more active frontal lobes. His grades improved, his crime rate slumped to zero and he stopped using drugs. That doesn’t sound like the brain was really calling all the shots to me.

The Spiritual Perspective

So, the mind can watch itself and also change the way the brain functions in significant ways. Why might that be more than an emergent property?

First of all, in the Pam Reynolds experience, which is not unique, we had, in my view, solid proof that her mind gathered and remembered information that her brain could never have gleaned or stored. It operated separately. The idea of mind/brain separation, therefore has evidence in its favour (See also Jenny Wade’s ‘Changes of Mind‘ for a full discussion of mind/brain separation in infancy and beyond). No theory connected with mind as an emergent property has ever predicted that. It goes way beyond what would have been expected.

That’s the kind of externally corroborated evidence that science likes to find but in this case prefers to ignore as what it demonstrates is held to be impossible.

More importantly though, there is the evidence of our own subjective experience. Remember the disparagement of free will? It’s an illusion, Dennett says. Such people also say that our experience of being able to look at our minds isn’t what it feels like. But why should we believe them about this any more than we should believe them when they say we do not really have free will? Is this another lamp post that needs kicking?

Who is it then that we can get in touch with when we watch ourselves? Who was there when we look back on every aspect of our lives at every period and feel we were the same self doing the watching then? Every cell in our bodies has since been changed. Is it really just a trick of language, neuronal connections or memory? Is there really no genuine constant sense of a real inner self observing all we do?

We all have to make our own decision about what that experience means. I think it is quite reasonable to say that it suggests that my mind is made of different stuff from my brain although it uses it. It is at least as reasonable to conclude that as to conclude that it’s all down to the neurons.

In another post there may be an opportunity to look at the work of Margaret Donaldson and Ken Wilber who both brilliantly advocate in their very different ways the value of subjective experience as data about reality. Many people can keep replicating the same experience by the same spiritual practices in very different cultures: that means something, they argue, about the true nature of reality. Newberg, D’Aquili and Rause have the humility to admit that even though we can pin down exactly what’s going on in the brain at the same time as these experiences, this doesn’t mean they’re not real anymore than understanding the neurobiology of colour vision proves that colour doesn’t exist. The fact that our brains turn wavelengths of light into the experience of colour does not mean there is nothing out there corresponding to the experience, even though green and 510 nanometres seem to have very little in common!

If I can carry you with me rather further now, let’s see in the next post where this possibility can take us. It is worth reminding ourselves again here that the word we use to describe this ability of the mind is ‘reflection.’ Next time we will be exploring mirrors, hearts, selves and consciousness. Not much to look forward to then.

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