I have spent the past few posts emphasizing that rational objects like aardvarks and zebras and medians don’t have any spatial location – which is to say that if they exist, they don’t exist in the material world.
Now look: I know that almost none of us actually believe this. In particular, we don’t believe in rational objects, which is to say, in pure concepts that have no location in the world – which is part of why we don’t believe in God. We believe in the laws of thermodynamics, and it has not escaped our notice that the idea of an aardvark – like any idea – is information, and that this information – like all information – requires energy (or its mass equivalent) to be stored or transmitted, and that whatever this energy is, it – like all energy – is a physical quantity and therefore must be located, well, in the physical world. Which means that, by the transitive property, we can rapidly discover that the idea of an aardvark must exist in the world.
But what is also true is that to believe such a thing is to run clearly afoul of the standard scientific dogma. Which is why you will never find, anywhere, a concrete claim for what specific physical substrate the subjective experience of the idea of an aardvark is stored on. Nobody ever says “hydrogen is where subjectivity is.” Which is why the problem with the brief proof above is the claim that the idea of an aardvark is information. For information, in science, may be measured in bits, but it is always carried upon some medium. That’s what’s missing for the mental world: a medium. And the reason it is missing is that our dogma forbids it. The mind is immaterial.
And it is this troublesome fact – that the standard dogma holds that the mind is immaterial, and the contents of the mind are immaterial, and the number two is immaterial – that we need to grapple with if we are to develop a real feeling for the enormity of the metaphysical task that awaits us. For if over time humanity has more and more closely apprehended the nature of reality, and if we would continue this forward motion, we must know what obstacles we are up against, and we must develop sufficient motivation to overcome them. It is impossible to imagine that we can develop such motivation if we continue to tell ourselves that the modern metaphysic may yet work.
So let me say it here: it won’t.
Many thoughtful people – many of them neuroscientists (among whose number I do not count myself) – think I’m off my rocker. There is, they tell me in so many words, no problem with the modern metaphysic. There is a place in the world for zebras and aardvarks and pi. I’ve just somehow overlooked it.
“[Where is pi?] asks the neuroscientist? Well, it exists in our heads. Quite literally. If pi truly is a distinct concept which humans can grasp AND such concepts have an underlying biophysical foundation in our brains, then it exists in the state of our brain at that moment when we are conceptualizing it. Perhaps there is a pi-cell, like the grandmother cell or the Jennifer Aniston cell. (http://bit.ly/k2r66y) Or perhaps there is no such dedicated cell, but it exists instead in a single state in the high-dimensional state-space of activity across the cortex. Who knows what its manifestation is, but in that moment, when you conceptualize it, it exists in the physical world in your brain.”
Not to pick on Justin – I think we’ve all done such things – but look at his apparently unconscious sleight of hand. First he writes: “if pi truly [has]… an underlying biophysical foundation in our brains…” Now that’s the hypothesis that he should want to prove, right? In regular science the next sentence would be something like “centrifuging the cerebrospinal fluid of a human being who, prior to death, had a documented understanding of pi, at 1500-2000 revolutions for 10-15 min should produce a buffy coat containing pi, as macrophages are known to eat pi.”
But no. Because as it turns out, his conditional statement was not a hypothesis, but a rhetorical flourish. In fact he has assumed what he wanted to prove. He goes on to talk about cells and states and cortical activity, which all sounds very appealing and functions to blind the reader with science, and then closes with a definitive statement: “in that moment, when you conceptualize it, it exists in the physical world in your brain.”
It is an intellectual scam, writ small. From an “if” we have produced a “then” without any of the usual intervening axioms or facts.
If this were just the case of Justin it wouldn’t be a cultural problem. But Justin speaks for all of us. We are, all of us, blind with science. And we are blind not for cognitive reasons, but neurotic ones. If I can put on my shrink hat for a second, I would say that modern neuroscience has put together a wonderful array of circumstantial evidence that the brain produces the mind. For this reason it is just killing us that we can’t find the smoking gun – the link in the explanatory chain to bridge the explanatory gap and solve the Hard Problem. Such impotence doesn’t fit with our grandiose view of our knowledge.
And so we tell ourselves that “brain makes mind” actually makes sense. And then we teach our students – like me, and Justin, and my cousin Benjamin – to just keep saying “pi is in our heads” and “zebras are in our heads” and “aardvarks are in our heads” over and over and over.
But we are cheating.
By the ground rule of western science, rational ideas – the mind – cannot exist in the physical world. As emphasized in the previous posts, this isn’t up for negotiation. The brain gets no diplomatic immunity to violate this law, and therefore is as incapable of serving to explain how the mind is produced as is the kidney, or the dung beetle, or iron pyrite.
We are fooling ourselves. We talk about cells and multi-dimensional state spaces and patterns of cortical connectivity and it sounds – pardon my French – so fucking smart that we end up believing we have solved the hard problem.
But we have not solved the hard problem.
The plain truth of the matter is that pi and the number two and the idea of an aardvark have no place in all this great wide world to go.
In the next few posts I want to explore just how radically different our metaphysical framework would be if rational objects were physical (here’s a small example: zero couldn’t exist), and why we can’t go on much longer simply muttering “mind is brain” to gloss over our conceptual faux pas. I will close by suggesting that we have on our hands not merely a metaphysical problem, but a social crisis and a medical emergency.