Immaterial substances in a natural world

Santy asked:

Is it possible to add into a naturalistic philosophy (naturalism) the existence of immaterial things? And, Is it possible that, though God did not exist, could immaterial things, even exist?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

One of the issues with the philosophical position of naturalism is that it means different things to different people, and those differences hinge precisely on the ontological status of immaterial, i.e., non physical, entities.

To begin with, let us distinguish among three positions to help frame the discussion: physicalism, naturalism and supernaturalism. At one end of this rough ontological spectrum, physicalism is the idea that only physical things, made of matter/ energy, exist in any meaningful sense of the word ‘exist.’ At the other end of the spectrum, supernaturalism is the position that not only there are physical things, but there exist also entities (one or more) that transcend nature, i.e., that violate, or are somehow outside of, the laws of nature as understood by science.

Somewhere in the middle – though closer to physicalism – are a variety of forms of naturalism. One type of naturalism may recognize the existence of only physical objects, which means that it collapses into physicalism (or perhaps it would be better to say that physicalism is one extreme kind of naturalism). But there are naturalists who consider themselves to be mathematical Platonists, and who propose that mathematical structures (i.e., abstract entities such as numbers, geometrical figures, theorems, etc.) have a mind-independent ‘existence,’ and they are therefore discovered (as opposed to invented) by mathematicians. This existence, of course, isn’t of the same type as that of physical objects (nobody thinks one can discover mathematical objects by using a telescope), but it is nonetheless more than the result of arbitrary abstractions of the human mind.

(By contrast, Sherlock Holmes – also an abstract entity – does not ‘exist’ in this sense, as he was arbitrarily invented by Arthur Conan Doyle during the 19th century: ‘truths’ about Holmes can only be ascertained by consulting Conan Doyle’s novels, while truths about mathematics can be independently discovered, and verified, by anyone in the world with sufficient mathematical skills.)

There are at the least two other varieties of naturalism worth mentioning. Both are more radical then the ones we have seen so far, but in very different ways.

David Kellogg Lewis, for instance, proposed a notion nowadays known as modal realism, the idea that all (logically) possible worlds are just as real as our world. These worlds, according to Lewis, are isolated from each other, and not causally connected among themselves. If this sounds weird, note that the notion isn’t that different from one way to look at quantum mechanics, the aptly named many-worlds (or Everett’s) interpretation, according to which every time a decision – say, to get chocolate rather than vanilla ice cream – is made in our world the universe ‘splits’ into two diverging universes: in one I picked chocolate, and in the other ‘I’ picked vanilla (the second universe seems rather less interesting to me, I must say…). This is not the same, although according to physicist Sean Carroll is related to, the notion of a multiverse in cosmology.

The second type of radical naturalism actually eschews physicalism, in a sense. It is known in philosophy of science as Ontic Structural Realism (OSR), and it is championed by philosophers like James Ladyman and Don Ross (see their book, ‘Every Thing Must Go’). According to OSR, which its supporters claim to be derived at the least in part from contemporary physics’ best understanding of the deep structure of reality, the universe is not made of ‘things,’ be they people, stars, or subatomic particles, but only of ‘relations,’ or ‘structures.’ It is these structures that are, according to the structural realist, described by modern physical theories like quantum mechanics.

Needless to say, all these forms of naturalism have their critics, but my sense is that most professional philosophers these days are naturalists of one type or another.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In answer to your question, Santy, let me propose a theory. It is not a theory in which I believe, that is to say, I don’t know of any convincing empirical evidence in support of this theory. However, it is a theory that could be true – or at least believable – were sufficient evidence to be uncovered.

I shall call the theory, ‘naturalist dualism’. That is intended as a clue. According to naturalist dualism, nature consists of two kinds of causally effective substance or entity: material substances and immaterial substances. (Numbers and abstract objects would not be included under the heading ‘immaterial substances’ because they do not stand in causal relations, although there are some varieties of Platonism that embrace the idea that our minds in some extended sense ‘causally’ interact with numbers, etc.)

According to naturalist dualism, minds are immaterial substances much as Descartes conceived them. They lack any of the essential attributes of material substance, such as mass or physical dimension. Because of this, they are incapable of being investigated by science, which relies on physical apparatus and instruments. What distinguishes naturalist dualism from Cartesian dualism, however, is that immaterial substances are not conceived as having been created by a supernatural being. They are simply part of the furniture of the given universe, the part that you and I can see by looking into ourselves, but which cannot be accessed by the physical methods of science.

It would be a bold person who claimed that there was any part of the universe that is necessarily inaccessible to the methods of science. But it is not such a nutty idea either. Thomas Nagel argues a version of this claim (weaker than I am claiming here) in his well-known article ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’.

If the universe contains such immaterial substances, then it ought to be possible to detect this indirectly by means of experiments revealing gaps in the causal order, where previously we were not aware of any such gaps. For example, a better understanding of the physical workings of the brain might reveal that it works more like a relay mechanism than a biological computer, receiving and processing impulses from an unobservable source.

Would this be a vindication of Descartes? Interestingly, no, because the very same ‘evil demon’ thought experiment that Descartes runs for the physical world – the world of material objects – can also be run for the world of material and immaterial objects. I know for certain that I exist, but I don’t know (because I might be deceived by an evil demon) that any material OR immaterial substances exist.


Personal identity and tele-transportation

Kristopher asked:

Hi, I am having trouble writing a paper on a philosophy of mind. I am currently in a intro to philosophy class and the question below is the question I am having trouble with. Could you possibly give me some insight on your opinion to the question posed?

Global warming has rendered the continuation of life on Earth impossible. Luckily, we have been able to melt the polar ice caps on Mars which has created the atmospheric conditions necessary to sustain human life. You have no choice but to make the 36 million mile journey to Mars. However, you can choose your method of transport.

One method is tele-transportation. You will step into a scanner here on earth which will destroy your brain and body, while recording the exact states of all your cells. This information will then be transmitted to a replicator on Mars. Travelling at the speed of light, the message will take three minutes to reach its destination. The replicator will create, out of new matter, a brain and body exactly like yours. The person on Mars will look like you, think like you, in fact be indistinguishable from you. He or she will feel as though they have merely fallen asleep on Earth and then woken up on Mars. This method is 100 percent reliable.

The other choice is to go by spaceship. This is very risky and there is a 50 percent chance that the ship will not complete the journey and you will die in transit. But if you do successfully take the spaceship, then your body and brain won’t at any stage have been destroyed.

You must make the choice which you think will give you the best chance of surviving. What does your choice say about your philosophy of mind?

Answer by Peter Jones

Exam questions are not always well thought through and this seems to be a particularly troublesome one. Your choice of a means of transport will tell you nothing at all about your philosophy of mind.

The travel company is telling you that if you teleport to Mars the person on Mars will be indistinguishable from you as you are now, even to YOU. In this case the travel process must transfer your body, brain AND mind. This is not to do with your philosophy of mind, it is a fact told to you by the travel company. Clearly they have discovered that the transfer of the physical aspects of you is sufficient to reconstitute you on Mars, including your mind. This is a condition of the question. So the decision is an easy one. Why risk going by ship?

The problem is, of course, that the question begs the question it purports to ask. It tells you what you are supposed to think. You are told that your mind is transferred with your brain, thus that your mind is entirely a product of your brain. You can’t change the question so the best way to travel is by teleportation, as you have been told, and what you think about philosophy of mind would be irrelevant to anything.

We can, however, doubt the premise of the question, that the transfer of your brain will entail the transfer of your mind. It is an assumption that renders the question toothless. The question tells us only about the examiner’s philosophy of mind. If the intention was to make you consider the relationship between mind and brain then it should have told you that your mind might or might not be the same when you are teleported to Mars. But if you are told that this relationship is such that you will be exactly the same person with 100% certainty then the question becomes uninteresting.

The real question is whether the teleportation of the brain would entail the teleportation of the mind. This could have been asked more clearly, and then the answer would have revealed your opinion.


Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I’m not surprised you are confused. I am confused too – although in my case it’s more a matter of wondering what any of this has to do with the philosophy of mind. The question is loaded with a dozen physical and biological fallacies, and on top of this it leaves completely undefined what understanding you or anyone should have of the word ‘mind’.

However, as a courtesy to you, since you spent some time writing it all out, let me give you the two answers from which you can make your choice:

(1) On one level the question is merely a silly metaphor for the Christian doctrine of reincarnation. Take the scientific mumbo jumbo away, affirm your faith and reply ‘yes’ to the proposition that the process of translation is 100% foolproof – as after all, God is in control. The benefit of this approach is, that you avoid the worry of considering the transmigration of souls into successive bodies (which is of course another way to think about it, but also religious).

(2) On another level, i.e. the scientific mumbo jumbo version, the terms in which the question is framed are inadmissable. The very first assumption, that a brain and body can be pulverised and reconstituted, implies the question ‘why can’t we put organic chemistry in a retort and cook up a new life?’ How are you supposed to handle this when no-one else on earth knows the answer? So the question has no philosophical merit. At any rate, it saves me the bother of refuting the other presuppositions.

I hope this helps you out of your troubles, as I’ve reduced your dilemma to a simple choice of two. The first requires you to choose between the Scriptures and nonsense biology as your authority. The other route is flying with the spaceship. This option is not inviting, but at least you know your chances.


Answer by Sam Michaelides

This question is focussing on the philosophical concept of personal identity and, in particular, a psychological continuity criterion of personal identity versus a bodily continuity criterion. For many, intuitively, the psychological continuity criterion (which states that the identity of a person through time is determined predominantly by psychological factors such as memory, experiences, personality and character traits, rather than on other factors, such as bodily continuity) is the preferred basis for personal identity.

Bernard Williams’ famous Reduplication Argument, however, (which links in to the teleportation example) has caused real problems for the psychological continuity criterion. The argument exposes how the criterion permits potentially infinite duplications, which are then, in a sense, competing for identity with the original. However, Williams believes such situations cannot be possible as identity between entities is an intrinsic relation and thus cannot be reliant on facts about any other entities.

Williams’ Argument was first presented in an early essay, ‘Personal identity and individuation’, as an attack on the memory/ psychological continuity account of personal identity. We are introduced to Charles who apparently has all the memories of the famous historical figure, Guy Fawkes. Historians have corroborated his claims, and indicated that other information he has provided would explain a lot that is not currently known; thus it would seem Charles is a good candidate for some incarnation of the long dead terrorist, offering all the criteria that a supporter of the memory criterion of personal identity could wish for in maintaining that Charles is (identical to) Guy Fawkes.

However, Williams then makes the important point that if it is logically possible that Charles undergoes the changes described, it is logically possible that someone else should also simultaneously undergo the exact same changes – enter Charles’ brother Robert. We now have two equally good candidates for identity with Guy Fawkes, but as Williams points out:

“They cannot both be Guy Fawkes; if they were, Guy Fawkes would be in two places at once, which is absurd. Moreover, if they were both identical with Guy Fawkes, they would be identical with each other, which is also absurd. Hence we could not say that they were both identical with Guy Fawkes.” (1973:8)

Williams argues that since it is not possible for both Charles and Robert to be Guy Fawkes, neither can be. Furthermore, since no facts about any other individual can be relevant to the identity relation between Charles and Guy Fawkes, there cannot be identity between them, even in the absence of a competing candidate, such as Robert.

It may be that a defender of a psychological continuity account of identity (as opposed to a theorist relying solely on memory) would not wish to hold that Charles in this situation is (identical to) Guy Fawkes in any case, but considering a more modern example (and one directly related to your question) will help to underline Williams’ point. Let us suppose that a person ‘A’ steps into some teleportation device in a certain place, gets scanned, disintegrated, then his information is beamed to another device in a different location, out of which steps ‘B’ – an exact replica of A with full psychological continuity. Most supporters of the psychological continuity criterion of personal identity would be happy to state that B is (identical to) A.

Williams is arguing the following: There is nothing to stop A’s information being sent to two or more teleportation devices, each of which can recreate the disintegrated A down the last detail; potentially giving us – at the very least – both B and C. Since it is not possible for both B and C to be (identical to) A, neither can be. Furthermore, since identity between A and B cannot depend on anything other than facts about A and B and the relationship between them, the mere possibility of C, D or any other duplicate coming to exist, means there cannot be identity between A and B even if no other duplicate does appear; thus invalidating any theory of identity that would permit such duplicate relations.

Williams’ argument makes clear one very simple point, which can be used against any theory based on psychological continuity – it permits a one-many relation to occur when identity is strictly one-one.

Various refutations and alternative theories have been offered up against Williams’ argument, all which are easy to find on the Internet. One interesting one is given by Robert Nozick, who rejects this intrinsic nature of identity and has thus developed a particular ‘best candidate’ approach (the Closest Continuer theory), which uses competing entities in order to judge identity. Nozick uses examples of artefact identity to show the implausibility of Williams’ arguments and believes his view (which when applied to cases of personal identity heavily favours psychological continuity) is supported by our intuitive responses to identity questions in many situations.

In my view, Williams’ argument does seem to present the psychological continuity theorist with grave problems concerning the necessity of identity and its intrinsic nature. Theories such as Nozick’s, that reject the intrinsicness of identity appear to either violate the necessity and transitivity of identity or force the theorist to accept some absurd consequences to do with the nature of existence. Also even if theories like Nozick’s did not have the problems just mentioned, the potential for countless duplicates and lack of fixed judgement criteria can inevitably lead only to unacceptable indeterminacy.

Personally, however, I would not want to dispense with psychological continuity as possible criterion of personal identity and have suggested in past work that a subscription to this view implies an accepted distinction between human beings and inanimate objects (leaving aside the complications of identity for non-human animals, futuristic robots etc). Once this distinction is accepted, a different notion of identity, which is epistemic and grounded in belief, should be applied in cases involving persons. If this is done we can indeed reject the intrinsicness of identity without it resulting in metaphysically absurd consequences; and thus psychological continuity should not be ruled out as a basis for personal identity simply because it permits one-many relations.

Whether or not all this means you should risk death on the spaceship or be teleported is, of course, entirely up to you…


Adding premisses to a valid inference in traditional and modern logic

Sophia asked:

I have this question in this logic course that I am taking and have been stuck on it for quite a while, the answer is true but have yet to figure out exactly why.

‘(iii) Any valid inference remains valid no matter what extra premises you may add to it.’

True or false?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Modern symbolic logic allows things that traditional logic does not. Your (iii) is true in modern logic and false in traditional logic. Writing ‘If p then q’ as p->q then p->q is valid traditionally only if the truth of p necessitates the truth of q, while in modern logic it is valid if it is a tautology; that is, it is always true. The difference here is that being a tautology is a sufficient condition for validity in modern logic, but only a necessary condition in traditional logic. So in modern logic if p is true and q is true then p->q is valid; while in traditional logic p->q is valid if, given that p is true then q must be true. So in modern logic if we have p->q is valid then, by the truth-table definition of p->q, q is true and p is either true or false; if we now add an extra premise, r, to get (p&r)->q then p&r is true if p and r are both true, and otherwise false. But since q remains true, it does not matter whether p&q is true or false, since (p&r)->q is true. hence valid.

This peculiarity of modern logic arises from the fact that it is based on Boolean algebra, which is an algebra of only two numbers, 0 and 1. Ordinary arithmetical operations work in this algebra, with two exceptions: 1+1=1 and 0-1=0. The algebra is perfectly consistent, and the application of it to computer switching works perfectly, but the application of it to logic does not. In modern logic 0 stands for false and 1 stands for true. Boolean addition then becomes logical disjunction and Boolean multiplication becomes logical conjunction; this works perfectly, and is the main justification for basing logic on this algebra; but two other Boolean operations, interpreted as implication and equivalence, do not. As a result you get such strange things as being able to deduce anything you please from a false proposition (and, worse, anything you please from a contradiction) and that any two propositions are equivalent if they have the same truth values. And these peculiarities extend in derivative logics: in quantificational logic anything you say of a non-existent thing is true, as in ‘All mermaids are butterflies’ and in modal logic you can deduce anything you please from an impossible proposition. It is a quite extraordinary fact that in the twentieth century Boolean logic was regarded as legitimate by almost all philosophers. It still is, for that matter. But feel free to reject it if you want to.


How does philosophy progress? (continued)

Christopher asked:

This is in response to a question of mine that was answered by Shaun Williamson titled How does philosophy progress?.

I feel like you only halfway answered my question, so I’m going to rephrase it so that it is more direct. In philosophy, there are times when two ideas/ theories/ ‘isms’ conflict with one another and are not compatible. It also seems to be the case that in some of these instances logic and reason alone are not enough to resolve this conflict. What I mean by this is that one idea is just as logical/ reasonable as the other one. My question is in these cases, how can one determine which one to agree with, provided that suspending belief is not an option? In your first response, you brought up truth as being the deciding factor, and I would agree with you, but so often in philosophy the truth is unknown. Consider, for example, the problem of consciousness as it relates to dualism and monism/ materialism. We don’t know how consciousness exists/ arises. Therefore, it could be that it arises purely from physical causes, which would lend evidence to materialism.

However, it also could be that consciousness is a product or somehow related to the immaterial mind, which would lend evidence to dualism. I understand that there is much more to the arguments for both of these ideas, but for the sake of argument let’s assume this is all we have to go on. How exactly is it that one would decide? My belief is that we would believe whichever idea appeals to us most, for whatever reason; popularity, an intuitive feeling, how well holding that belief fits in with our other maintained beliefs, etc.

I’m not claiming that this is the right way to decide what you believe, I’m simply saying that this is the only option left. I’m asking whether or not there is another way of deciding what to belief in these instances that avoids all this subjectivity.

Answer by Peter Jones

You ask a very good question, one that I feel is not asked often enough. I hope Shaun won’t mind me cutting in.

The way we make decisions in analytical philosophy is by the use of dialectic logic. Commonly, as you say, we see that philosophers believe whichever idea appeals to them most for whatever reason, following an intuitive feeling, or adopting beliefs that fit in with their other maintained beliefs, etc. But the ideal method is to use logic to reveal absurd theories and thus weed them out of our thinking.

Often we meet contradictions and antinomies. As you say, there are times where two opposite views/ ideas/ theories/ ‘isms’ conflict with one another and are not compatible. This is a problem where these two opposite views seem to exhaust the possibilities and we feel forced to adopt one of them. In Western philosophy this is a common practice. Here most philosophers hold views that do not stand up to logical analysis on the grounds that no view stands up to it so we might as well pick one we like. For instance, some physicists argue for ex nihilo creation even though the idea is plainly daft.

The proper method would be to reject all views that give rise to contradictions. This is how the dialectic is supposed to work. To some students this approach seems impossible in our traditional philosophy, since it seems that all metaphysical questions lead to antinomies. But this would be an interpretation. The reason some people feel obliged to endorse creation from nothing is that the opposite idea (an eternal ‘something’) is absurd. But the fact is that they are both absurd and should both be rejected. When we reject them both we arrive at a view called ‘nondualism’, which is the philosophical view that underlies mysticism. We arrive at this view by the simple process of trusting our logic and abandoning all views that give rise to contradictions.

So, in the West the question you are asking is important but has no answer. This would by people like Tyson and Dawkins have such a low opinion of philosophy and do not bother with it. They believe it cannot make decisions and is terminally inconclusive. If we do allow it to make decisions, assuming that all logically absurd theories are false, then we end up having to abandon both dualism and monism and endorse the nondual view of the Upanishads and the Tao Teh Ching. The only alternative is to ignore logic and claim that philosophy is unable to make decisions or make progress, as is the usual practice in our universities.

This is a quick response and really it needs a lot more words. I suggest reading Bradley, Nagarjuna, Spencer Brown and other logicians who discuss this issue, and perhaps (ahem) my blog. The issues can become complex, since for the recommended approach to philosophical decision-making to work the laws of dialectical logic have to be closely examined, and there are some subtleties that cause disputes.

I would say that if you can reach a satisfactory answer to your question then you will have solved metaphysics, (since you will know how to decide between theories), and that it is possible to reach a satisfactory answer. But it would require a lot of thinking outside of the box in which academic philosophy seems happy to confine itself at present.


Descartes and the challenge of scepticism

Tay asked:

Does Rene Descartes provide a persuasive reply to the challenge of scepticism? Why or why not? If not, how is it (or is it?) possible to know anything for certain?

Answer by Graham Hackett

Arguably Descartes provides a persuasive answer to the sceptical challenge. For him, resisting the sceptical challenge comes from knowing with certainty, that our experiences do not come from a vivid dream, or from an evil demon capable of contriving and controlling our perceptual inputs, or a matrix-type scenario , where we are brains in vats, fed a rich, but unreal set of experiences electronically. However we represent the sceptical scenario, you can easily get the picture; how can we be sure that our experiences are not real knowledge, but the result of one of these situations?

Descartes proposes that whatever the real situation, he knows that he thinks, and no dream scenario, or evil demon can persuade him otherwise. If he thinks, then he has the foundation for asserting the truth of his experiences. Thus our introspection persuades us that we exist. Descartes uses the expression ‘clear and distinct’ to explain his certainty. My beliefs about my mental states have this special status for me because of:

1. Infallibility. If I believe P (where P is a proposition about my mental states) , and am justified in the belief, then P must be true. So provided I believe something, I cannot be mistaken about it. It is logically impossible that I would be wrong in a belief about my mental states. In fact, stated strongly, the belief guarantees justification, truth, and therefore knowledge about our mental states.

2. Omniscience. For any proposition P which is true, it is impossible that I would fail to know P. Here, truth and justification guarantee knowledge.

3. Indubitability. If I believe P, it is logically impossible for anyone else to doubt that I know P. Belief guarantees justification and truth of P

4. Incorrigibility. For any proposition P which I believe this guarantees knowledge, plus the impossibility of anyone being able to show that I am wrong.

5. Truth-Sufficiency. For any true proposition P about my mental states it is logically impossible that I would not be justified in knowing P. A bit like omniscience, except that here, truth guarantees justification.

6. Self Warrant. A bit stronger – If I believe something about my mental states, then that is sufficient to guarantee justification and truth, and hence knowledge.

I recommend reading a paper by William Alston ‘Varieties of Privileged Access’,
American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 8, Jul., 1971). for a full account.

This is a persuasive account, but it is possible to raise doubts. Wittgenstein argued that if words get their meaning by referring to my experience, then what I mean by ‘experience’ means ‘my experience’. It is impossible that anyone else could have my experiences. But that means that it makes no sense to think of other people having experience – because ‘experience’ refers to my experience alone. Wittgenstein argued that a ‘private’ language of this kind is logically impossible. Wittgenstein concludes that we cannot fix the meaning of words by appealing to private sensations. Instead, we have to use something public, available to other people.

This matters for the Cartesian stand against scepticism, since it casts doubts on Descartes claims of infallibility, omniscience, indubitability etc, for introspection.

So is it possible to know anything with certainty, if we hold that Descartes’ ‘clear and distinct’ perception is not enough? We may have to abandon two notions about knowledge if we are to make any headway with this question.

Firstly, we may have to abandon the absolute element in knowledge. To say that something is flat in an absolute sense may be impossible, because there will always be microscopic irregularities in any surface. Likewise, in order to say that we know anything in the same absolute way, we would have to be able to rule out every possible alternative, even the most remote ones, (such as an evil demon, or a vivid dream). It is impossible to do this, which is why the sceptical argument has such traction, and can rob us of our ability to claim knowledge. Do we have to do this? Do we have to rule out every possible alternative before we can say we know something? There is a whole area of epistemology based on qualifying the use of the word ‘know’ with respect to the context in which we use the term, and the alternative propositions which can be judged relevant or irrelevant to our considerations. Look up ‘contextualism’ and ‘relevant alternatives’ in any good dictionary of philosophy.

Secondly, we may have to accept that we are unable to pursue any philosophic enquiry to the limits without accepting some bedrock unquestionable principles. G.E Moore may have had this idea in mind when he made his famous proof of the existence of external objects;

‘Here is one hand, here is another. They are two physical objects, so there must be an external world’. (Read ‘Proof of an External World’ Moore, – freely available on the internet).

Moore offers this as a perfectly sound proof, with distinct premise and conclusion. You do not always have to prove your premises (e.g.; here are two hands) before you develop an argument, otherwise you would never begin to get off the ground at all. Wittgenstein, who was interested in this proof by Moore developed these ideas further in his posthumously published work ‘On Certainty’. To use his own expression, there are certain underlying principles which are like the hinges of a door; without these hinges, the door will not either open or close. Similarly, without the ‘hinges’ of knowledge, it is not possible to conduct any philosophic enquiry. The sceptics would not even be able to argue for their own position if it was never possible to claim knowledge. Scepticism might even be said to be self defeating.


Deciding to burn your hand on the stove

Devin asked:

I have a question about human consciousness. How come we can actively disobey what our brain is trying to tell us (for example, if we put our hand on a hot stove, although it is our natural response to pull away, we can choose to keep our hand on the stove)? If our brain was the ‘control center of the body’, then shouldn’t it be able to pull the hand away from the stove if it was in control? If it is not in full control, then does this prove human consciousness? If not, then how come I can actively choose to disobey my natural response? (I apologize for my stringing of questions.)

Answer by Henk Tuten

I’m not a biologist or neuroscientist but in general I agree that our brain is the organ that steers the rest of our bodily behavior. Though I’m sure that there are steering/ control units outside the brain.

Behavior is largely a DNA matter and for a tiny part cultural. Our brain handles both, DNA matters majorly in the brain stem. And though tiny, cultural commands can be stronger than DNA commands. Evolution archived in DNA says that it is better to stay away from burning heat, because it is damaging.

Cultural decisions can be otherwise for all kinds of reasons. Our brain weighs both, and that way can overrule DNA reactions.

Consciousness is an abstract concept, and the behavior connected to it shows that we can distinguish between ourselves and the hot stove. And that our brain can decide that it is safer to let ‘John’ burn his hand than let it happen to ourselves. But also that we can decide to fight the hot stove, for serious reasons or just for fun.

That I decide to damage my hand doesn’t prove that I’m ‘conscious’, only that my brain can decide for behavior that damages part of the body of which the brain is the dominant organ. Brains can even decide for suicide, but also ant DNA can make ants show self-destructive behavior.

Are ants ‘conscious’? That depends on the definition. But in general being able to overrule DNA behavior has a lot to do with the capacity of this brain. Our brains in the long term (millions of years) in DNA select effective behavior.

I leave a more detailed and maybe better answer to neuroscientists.

But fine question.