Friday, June 16, 2017

Wandering with questions, and not caring for the answer

As a graduate student, I was in heaven in the libraries.  I had never seen so many books, magazines, and newspapers in my life in the old country.  And now I had a much bigger problem than ever before: How to decide what to read and what to skip?

I suspect that this situation was the proverbial necessity for which I had to invent a whole new way of reading and understanding.  I had to figure out what was the most important message that I had to quickly scan for and know.  I am not sure if what I have since developed is the best approach to acquiring knowledge and wisdom, but it seems to work good enough for me.

So, I would wander by the book-stacks and smell those papers and pick up something to read.  I always scanned the new arrivals.  And, of course, the journals and the magazines.  Somehow, I never developed the instinct to want to write.  I merely wanted to read, and I enjoyed it.

Those were the bad old days before the web.  Now, more than two decades into the world of web, I have access to even more books, magazines, and newspapers than I could have ever dreamed about.  I continue with my habit of wandering through the cyberspace and hoovering up whatever interests me.

Which is how I ended up at this essay in which a neurologist writes about consciousness:
Over my career, I’ve gathered a neurologist’s working knowledge of the physiology of sensations. I realize neuroscientists have identified neural correlates for emotional responses. Yet I remain ignorant of what sensations and responses are at the level of experience. I know the brain creates a sense of self, but that tells me little about the nature of the sensation of “I-ness.” If the self is a brain-generated construct, I’m still left wondering who or what is experiencing the illusion of being me. Similarly, if the feeling of agency is an illusion, as some philosophers of mind insist, that doesn’t help me understand the essence of my experience of willfully typing this sentence.
Slowly, and with much resistance, it’s dawned on me that the pursuit of the nature of consciousness, no matter how cleverly couched in scientific language, is more like metaphysics and theology. It is driven by the same urges that made us dream up gods and demons, souls and afterlife. The human urge to understand ourselves is eternal, and how we frame our musings always depends upon prevailing cultural mythology. In a scientific era, we should expect philosophical and theological ruminations to be couched in the language of physical processes. We argue by inference and analogy, dragging explanations from other areas of science such as quantum physics, complexity, information theory, and math into a subjective domain. Theories of consciousness are how we wish to see ourselves in the world, and how we wish the world might be.
We continue to struggle with those questions that our ancestors struggled with: How did this all come about? Who am I? How do I know all this is for real and not an illusion? What happens after this "I" that I recognize dies?

Science does not have an answer.  We might want to add "yet" to that previous sentence, but, come on, we won't have a definitive answer for a long, long, long time.  Which means, " in the absence of scientific evidence, all opinions about the mind are in the realm of belief and religion."

What amazes me is that the essay does not even casually mention the Hindu philosophical idea of maya.  Yet, the very idea of maya is explored in the following paragraph in that essay:
According to Daniel Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University and author of Consciousness Explained and many other books on science and philosophy, consciousness is nothing more than a “user-illusion” arising out of underlying brain mechanisms. He argues that believing consciousness plays a major role in our thoughts and actions is the biological equivalent of being duped into believing that the icons of a smartphone app are doing the work of the underlying computer programs represented by the icons. He feels no need to postulate any additional physical component to explain the intrinsic qualities of our subjective experience.
Illusions. Maya.
For his part, Dennett is an outspoken atheist and fervent critic of the excesses of religion. “I have absolutely no doubt that secular and scientific vision is right and deserves to be endorsed by everybody, and as we have seen over the last few thousand years, superstitious and religious doctrines will just have to give way.” As the basic premise of atheism is to deny that for which there is no objective evidence, he is forced to avoid directly considering the nature of purely subjective phenomena. Instead he settles on describing the contents of consciousness as illusions, resulting in the circularity of using the definition of mental states (illusions) to describe the general nature of these states.
If we want to understand, and argue about, climate change, well, science and the scientific method is what I will go with.  If we want to understand, and argue about, income inequality, I will lay out my preferred values and, therefore, my version of the social contract.  But, when we want to understand those eternal questions, hey, it turns out that your story is as good--or bad--as mine.

I will continue to wander the virtual book-stacks and contemplate on that big question: Who am I?  I know well that I will never find the answer.  But, the fun is in thinking through the question; it is not really about the answer.



Ramesh said...

God. You read that essay ?? I know its Saturday morning where I am - not the best of times for a brain challenge. But I am shaking my head to clear the cobwebs. I tried to read that paragraph and simply glazed over and haven't taken a word.

Don't you have anything better to do online :) :)

Sriram Khé said...

I play bridge online ... does that count? ;)

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