So there’s literally tons of stuff I could write about, but there are two things that attract my attention like nothing else. Well… three actually; I shouldn’t forget my girlfriend 😉
But seriously, of all the things that make life a miracle, none stand out as much as The Universe and The Mind. It’s these two concepts around which all other big questions revolve; we perceive the universe with our minds, by being conscious and having the ability to reason. Our unique mental capacities, on this planet at least and as far as we know, are rooted for a great part in our ability to remember the path through time that brought us to the present moment, and extrapolate possible futures from that. We see things happen in our universe and try to explain how and why they happen; we see what effect our actions have in that universe and adjust our behavior to aim for the future we like most.
This is where science is born, in the constant interaction between mind and universe; your mind is in that universe, but the universe is also in your mind. And through your mind you shape that universe, but the universe also shapes your mind. Oh, and you can exchange “universe” with “surroundings” or “world” if you want; I like to think big. And sometimes ramble about the big questions 😉
Are the mind and the body separate? That’s one of the most interesting age old questions made famous by Descartes. For truly religious people the answer has always been the same; the mind, or the soul, is a separate entity that leaves the body after death. But beyond that, I think most people are instinctively dualist; this I can not prove, it’s just an intuition I have. Personally I’m not religious in any way, and count myself a rationalist. I believe that the scientific method is the best, or rather the least flawed method we as humans have to determine shared truths. But I also have reservations when it comes to science; I think science isn’t equipped (yet?) to handle certain truths or theories.
Most modern scientists are of the materialist or naturalist persuasion; it’s the idea that only things and forces in nature are real, and that supernatural or spiritual entities are simply not real. And I get that, it’s what I like to believe to. It’s just that I’m not sure, and I’m not sure if we can be sure. The more information I get about the universe, the brain and the role of the brain in the universe, the more difficult it become for me to draw a sharp line between where “I” end and where “The Universe” begins. The more I think about these things, however rational I might think I am, I feel an ever growing sense of unity between me and the universe.
It’s that age old question again: are the mind and the body separate? Does consciousness “happen” in the brain or through the brain? Is “consciousness” everywhere, and does my brain just act like an antenna to receive my personal “wavelength” of it’s omnipresent signal, or is it the complex web of electronic and chemical signalling between trillions of synapses in my brain from which it emerges? In a previous post, Recognizing Mental Gaps, I already described the mind’s incredible capacity to construct a model of reality, but I didn’t emphasize how good we are at predicting the future. You see, not only do we perceive a model of the universe with our minds, we actually predict that model continuously. It takes time for external sensory input to be processed before the mental construction is done, so we have to make the model in our minds a fraction of a second before reality happens… Think about that; we are actually front-running reality itself.
But you know what? Our own body is also part of the mental world-model. We create in our minds a model of the universe with ourself in it. The age old conundrum has just become even more enigmatic! Where’s the border with a sign that says “the real world begins here”? It’s where I bump my head against the wall I guess… On a serious note though, even naturalists are finding new ways to “expand the mind”, so to speak. I’ve recently listened to a one hour pod-cast, that I will link below, called “Lisa Aziz-Zadeh on Embodied Cognition, Mirror Neurons, and Empathy”. Among other things, she describes a new theory in neuroscience and psychology called Embodied Cognition. Cognition is more than just “thinking”; it’s the whole ensemble of brain-functions, including conscious thinking, unconscious processes, and motor-functions. Scientists are finding more and more evidence that we don’t think with our brains alone, but with our entire body, and beyond.
The whole idea for this relatively new theory originates with the discovery of mirror neurons in apes.
A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species. – source: Wikipedia
These special neurons have been discovered in 1996 and in primates and birds only. And in humans, for the religious among us. The best example of how this works I still think is when one man sees another man being kicked in the nuts real hard. The one that observes this crime against manhood doesn’t feel the pain, but acts like he does; involuntarily he makes a painful face, and after that looks away, or even grabs his own family-jewels as to assure himself of their unharmed state. These neurons probably also play a big role in learning; babies and toddlers do nothing but mimic the grown-ups and it’s nice to have the related neurons trained in advance, before trying to walk on your own. These neurons are believed to play a major role in our ability to empathize.
But that just the tip of the iceberg; now there even seems to be a relation between abstract thinking and and mirror neurons. When we think or talk about an abstract saying like “grasping the meaning” of something, the mirror neurons associated with physically grabbing something with your hand actually become active! So not only do we operate our body with our mind, we sometimes operate our mind with our body. Astonishingly this is also seen in robotics, where movements became more efficient when programmers took both a top-down and a bottom-up approach when writing the algorithms for limbs.
In the linked pod-cast there’s even talk about our ability to incorporate prosthetic limbs in our body-model, and even often used tools become an integrated part of our mental self-image. Even the pen and paper you use to make that complicated calculation should be incorporated as integral part of your thinking process. And yes, the same goes for your ever distracting mobile. It’s not me saying that (well, actually it is now, but I’m just parroting), it’s all in this pod-cast of one naturalist scientist interviewing another one. If you’re at all interested in this philosophical and scientific stuff, I highly recommend you listen to it.
For me this hasn’t helped solving the mind-body problem. I still slightly lean toward the materialistic view, but I can never be sure. And, although I’m not a professional scientist, I believe it’s somewhat presumptuous to say you know for certain that mind and body are the same, and that they are both separate from everything else. There’s not even a good understanding of what consciousness is, there’s no universally agreed upon definition even. All the evidence points to what modern science says, but then again, modern science simply doesn’t look outside nature. A nature perceived by minds just like yours and mine, with no direct view on the true nature of reality. There no way for us to prove that we’re not part of a simulation (simulation hypothesis) or a holographic universe:
The holographic principle is a property of quantum gravity theories which resolves the black hole information paradox within string theory. First proposed by Gerard ‘t Hooft, it was given a precise string-theory interpretation by Leonard Susskind. – source: Science Daily
Cartesian dualism is rejected in most of modern science; naturalists rightfully say that there’s no way for something outside nature’s realm to interact with the real world, and therefore serve no purpose in efforts to learn about the nature of reality. I reject it to, but for a whole different reason. For me the distinction between my consciousness and the universe has become ever more blurry, with moments of clarity when I think I’m sure one way or the other, but minutes later doubting my own certainty again. This might just be one of those things that’ll be forever out of reach to know for certain, scientifically or otherwise…