Showing posts with label the self. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the self. Show all posts

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Discovering the Philosopher in You: Part 12: The Self: Who Am I?

Continuing the series, twelve of fourteen... Who am I?  What is the "self"?  Either Prof McGinn prefers philosophy of the mind to other parts of philosophy, or these really are the most important questions of philosophy.  In a way I find it a bit off-putting that he only devotes one lecture to the question of God (that's next).

So Descartes had apparently proven that the self exists with his, cogito ergo sum, but, there's still more to be said than just that 'I' exist.  Things like why does the self seem to change significantly over the course of one's life, but at the same time, it persists despite these changes.  What sort of thing can the self be?

According to the lecture there are three primary theories about the self.  The simple ego theory, which falls neatly within the dualist framework, says the self is like an indivisible immaterial mental substance not unlike the soul or spirit.  The self goes beyond the mind and the body, like the peg that your mental states and personality are hung on and taken off of at different times and ways.  Prof McGinn talks about the issues with this concept, how can the self be something that is nothing.  This thing that's not a thing at all, loosely related to the mind.  So, this thing that is quintessential to my existence is something about which nothing can truly be said, since it's some indescribable mental substance.

Then there's brain/body theory which falls within the materialist framework.  The self is nothing more than the brain which is a complex physical substance, not a simple immaterial substance as the dualist would hold.  Therefore, when a materialist refers to the self, it's just a part of the brain construct that retains one's identity.  There are many difficulties with this theory and several interesting thought experiments, many of which have been shown in various science-fiction movies/books.  Pretty much any way of transferring one's brain, memory, or thoughts into a different person or body.  Like in the third movie in the Matrix trilogy, the Neo character transfers his consciousness into the machine construct/computer.  Did that mean that he was dead?  What about if you could transfer all your memories and/or brain into an assembly-line body?  Is that no longer the same person?  Presumably yes that is now you.  So, the body is not the self and neither is the brain.  Based on these thought experiments, it seems clear that the self has little or no relation to the body or the brain.  The most difficult one is the idea of splitting your brain.  There is some interconnectedness in the brain hemispheres, suppose one could divide your brain between two bodies.  Would you cease to exist?  Presumably no, if anything it would be multiplying yourself.

Lastly, the mental connectedness theory, basically the idea that there is no self as a bearer of mental states, just the mental states themselves, a stream of consciousness.  There really is no continual self, it's an illusion borne of a flow of mental states.  This may seem to fit, but there are difficulties with this idea as well.  Like the previous example of splitting the brain, the same problems with the brain/body theory apply here, if this were possible it would show that there must be a self to experience the mental states that one has.  That's a complicated example of a breakdown in this theory.  A much simpler issue with the theory arises when one has no mental state going on at all.  During certain parts of the sleep cycle there's basically nothing going on mentally.  Or getting knocked out.  We're not talking brain-dead, I'm relatively sure everyone would agree that is death.  But, what about when the stream of consciousness is interrupted?  Is the person dead?  Presumably no.  Whatever the case, it doesn't seem like this is a sufficiently strong theory either.

So we're left with another deep mystery much like the mysteries of the mind-body problem and consciousness coloring our experience of the world around us.  As usual, I don't really have an answer to this problem.  I'm comfortable with the simple ego and it's consistency with dualism and theology, but I don't want to just cop out saying, "well, this is the way I believe even though there's no way to prove it."  Though, since there's no way to prove any of these theories that might be the answer everyone has to give.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Discovering the Philosopher in You: Part 10: Consciousness: Can the Mystery Be Solved?

To be perfectly honest, this is really more like a continuation of the last lecture on the mind-body relationship, and it seems like this is Prof McGinn's favorite topic.

First, Prof McGinn mentions two specific types of consciousness, simple and self.  Simple consciousness is just the consciousness of objects, and other simple senses, though they're not really all that simple.  The self-consciousness is the ability to be conscious of the simple consciousness and to have a sense of self.  Simple consciousness isn't really all that simple if you think about the case of a person blind from birth. He or she would have no conception of sight, or in the case of a bat's echolocation or the platypus' electroreception, we as humans, have no consciousness of what it's like to sense things in those ways.  The simple consciousness is part of the subjectivity of consciousness, they are for a particular subject.  For you, in the case of your sensations.

The next part of consciousness is its intentionality, that is the object of a sense or consciousness.  Even sense experiences are based on intentionality, I'm sensing with my eyes/sight the table that's across the room from me.  I'm sensing with my ears/hearing the airconditioner fan blowing.  Consciousness has to be about something.  One cannot sense nothing, that's not consciousness.  Even in the self-consciousness, it's a reflection on 'I.'  There's no way to think about nothing.  Even if one is thinking about nothingness, that's still thinking about something.

Consciousness is special to the human experience in that it's the only thing that we know completely without any doubt.  As we talked about in skepticism in lecture one, even though we cannot be absolutely sure of the existence of anyone or anything.  We can be certain of our own thoughts and therefore our own consciousness is the only thing that is fully transparent to each person.  So, next time your male significant other answers the question, "What are you thinking about?" with, "Nothing." or "I don't know."  You can know he's lying.  We as conscious beings are always in the know about our own consciousness.  (To be fair, one could answer, "I don't remember." because even though we always know our own consciousness we don't always remember everything we ever think about.)

Prof McGinn is quick to point out that dualism doesn't really help in this issue of brain/mind disconnection, which he refers to as a consciousness gap.  I (somewhat) agree, because there's no good way to define how an etherial non-material substance can/does influence the material brain/body.  My personal input on this is just because we don't know how the non-material can influence the material doesn't mean that it doesn't or can't.  The existence of a non-material-based consciousness that can influence and be influenced by the material fills the consciousness gap quite nicely.

Prof McGinn's "answer" here is that it's a deep mystery.  First, we need to understand what he means by this...  It's not some spiritual answer.  Not some ethereal non-existent soul or spiritual answer, it's simply beyond human means of understanding.  Like the theory of relativity to a dog.  Even many people can't claim that they fully understand it, think about what that would be like to a dog, that's what it's like for humans to try to understand the consciousness.  Incidentally, he thinks this type of explanation might also fit well with free will and determinism.

My answer to this type of claim is that it seems like a copout like I mentioned before about zen being able to cheat the laws of non-contradiction.  It seems like rather than addressing these mysteries with faith in the non-material, he just says that we cannot know these things.  Now, at least he leaves it open to the possibility that we may someday evolve to knowing/solving these riddles, but that we don't know what that evolution could entail or what kind of change it will require.  It's so far beyond us that it might take as many years of evolution in the future that we've had already.  Obviously I don't disagree that it's a mystery, but my response to the mystery is to believe that there must be something more to existence. The dualism idea does fill the consciousness gap albeit mysteriously.

I just restarted college courses, I'm taking two classes, Education 200 and Apologetics 104.  It looks to be a fairly easy semester.  The reason I bring this up is I'm thinking of featuring my essays that I write for class on my blog.  Since I'm taking the classes I won't have as much time to write so that'll give me stuff to write about that'll be useful for my classes and something interesting that I can share with you.  Obviously I'll only post stuff that'll make sense to you or give you some context from which I'm writing.