Gertler on disembodied ‘facts’

Ronald asked:

Can you explain Brie Gertler’s disembodiment argument to me?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Probably the best way to approach this argument is via psychosomatic pain, where it is often uncertain whether such pain is ‘imaginary’ or a real pain caused by the sympathetic reaction of some somatic processes. One doesn’t have to be a medico to understand that emotional turmoil can affect our organs. Gertler’s argument therefore centres on the age-old dilemma of how mental states can physically affect the body.

It insinuates the existence of two radically different communications pipelines (or forms of energy) in the body. But although electrochemical signalling is measurable on suitably calibrated instruments, the flow of energy being rendered visible as scintillations can only be distinguished from others by the site where they occur. In other words, the excitation of a nerve that carries a pain signal from a cut to the brain does not wear the label ‘pain’; we deduce from the fact that the signal is transported from this place to a particular sector of the brain that the recipient must be feeling ‘pain’. Therefore Gertler’s first line of attack is on the common viewpoint that the excitation of a nerve strand and the feeling of pain are two aspects of one experience, which can be understood as identical with each other.

But Gertler objects that this is confusing a physical signal with a non-physical mental or emotional state. Evidently ‘physical’ means embodied, whereas ‘non-physical’ means disembodied. As it happens, the notion of identity is based on a (deliberate?) forgetfulness that it isn’t the brain which suffers, but rather that it acts as a ‘go between’, converting the sensory excitation into a sense of pain and piping it into the person’s consciousness. The upshot is an inescapable logic asking for an autonomous, yet disembodied recipient faculty that is not in receipt of an unmediated communication from a throbbing nerve.

All the above has repercussions on matters of the mind such as ideas, thoughts, concepts, imagination etc. Gertler has no compunction defending Descartes’ dual substance doctrine, i.e. that he was right in his fundamental distinction between res extensa (embodied matter) and res cogitans (disembodied faculty aka mind). This does not entail having to defend Descartes’ gross errors when it comes to details, of which no-one takes notice any more. Even so, there are all sorts of other issues entangled in this duality from which Gertler’s approach could draw the sting.

Consider the reports of persons who had a leg amputated, but insist that they can still wriggle their toes. The ‘disembodiment’ idea can guide us towards a feasible resolution. It may be a memory pipeline that wasn’t closed, so that the impulse for toe wriggling (which is of course disembodied) remains alive in the brain; and as the brain ‘expects’ a wriggling response, it conveys it as a ‘fact’ to your mind, even though it is now physically impossible. We don’t know this, of course, but is a plausible scenario.

Consider further the effect of anaesthesia. Here the problem to overcome is the habit of neural afferents to ‘switch off’ when a signal is detected as a steady pulse; and they remain in the ‘off’ position until the sensation changes in nature or strength. The corollary to this is that the brain keeps the impression of pain alive until a new instruction arrives. In other words: The circuit from afferent to the brain is actually broken for a considerable length of time, even while brain continues ‘manufacturing’ a feeling of pain. The application of an analgesic is then equivalent to ‘news’ for the brain to react by ‘switching off’ the pain. It is hard to conceive of a more persuasive scenario for the plausibility of Gertler’s ‘disembodiment’ theme.

One more issue raised by Gertler points in the same direction. She says, I can easily conceive of a pain at any time, without actually feeling it. This reflects our imaginative capacity as well as our ability to conceptualise experiences and then ‘play’ them through the mind — in retrospect, in envisioning a future, even in fiction. It summarily rebuts the notion that sensory stimulation and its effect on our consciousness comprise an unfiltered unity. Concepts are disembodied too!

In sum: Gertler’s ‘disembodiment argument’ seeks to redress a lopsided scientific position which has been overstressing the physicalist position for so long by now, that it seems part of the furniture. If I may speak pro domo for a moment, it has always seemed incomprehensible to me that the scientific enterprise of our civilisation painted itself into a corner from which there is no exit except to disown the idea of a disembodied substance — as if the universe is not rich enough to engender two substances and for objects imbued with life to avail themselves of both!

What makes a chair a chair (2nd opinion)

Acer asked:

What makes a chair a chair?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I suspect you’re angling for a Platonic form and have, perhaps, a killing riposte up your sleeve, like the one Parmenides gave to the young Sokrates in the dialogue where they both appear — not to mention Aristotle’s dismissive evaluation. But even these two critics missed a fundamental point. Unlike Christians, who imbibe notions of infinitude and eternity with their mother’s milk, they had no genuine conception of either; it was an ‘irrational’ conception, along with such items as the impossibility of assigning a cardinal number to the hypotenuse of a square, if the sides are whole numbers (or vice versa). An important additional corollary was their inability to envisage a future, as we do routinely with our expectations (on the back of 600 years of unremitting progress) of ever more knowledge, expertise and technology still to come.

Where this becomes a telling limitation is in the Platonic notion of an ‘eternal’ idea. It’s probably not a good idea to try and make a list of them, if only because many of them (e.g. the form of ‘Man’) look so much alike they seem to twins, quintuplets, 12 to a dozen etc. Most importantly, however, Plato made a huge omission that really ought to puzzle us. Where are the perfect utilitarian forms? Where in God’s name is the most crucial resource of humans, the intentional ideas and acts that spawn the overwhelming percentage of our actual being? I mean to protest, as after all: if I thump some fellow on the nose for being an ass, there must be a template somewhere for this kind of behaviour, which indeed is likely to be a thousand-fold daily occurrence on earth. And, ceteris partibus, owing to some such utilitarian intentional templating, it is where we also find the templated ingredients for the device under consideration, the chair.

Now on account of his omission, it could not genuinely occur to Plato that a multitude (if not infinitude) of such ideas belong to a future over which Ananke had drawn her veil. Moreover a future in which his heaven also changed its ‘whereabout’. What I mean by this is that his heaven was never ‘up there’ in the nether-nether, but always a ‘virtual heaven’ in a virtual location called Utopia.

This Utopia is a collective ideal site in which the basic forms of human inventions are housed. Being lodged here, but being intrinsically portable, they comprise a resource from which further basic, but also composite forms can be derived. E.g. the invention of the wheel rested on the insight that a circle offers a more efficient resource for continuous movement that any polyhedron. In this context Plato’s methexis becomes self-explanatory: it is a ‘self-help resource’ for humans dispensing with the cumbersome apparatus of urging the rain clouds to drop a load of ideal forms on the head of an enquirer or inventor.

If you’ve followed me so far, then I can dispense with all the intermediate steps from the ideal forms of 3 or more ideal lines (sticks) arranged to support a platform of ideal quadrilateral, oval or circular shape, to explain chairs. This practical invention might have occurred to Homo erectus and become a resource for all its variations from stools, wheelchairs, chaiselonges and thrones to helicopters and whatever else may still prove useful for the purpose of putting a bum on a seat (or for that matter, putting a chair into a painting or doll’s house).

Therefore (coming to an end of these long-winded preliminaries) the ultimate source of a chair — that which makes a chair a chair — is nothing other than a human being’s intention to make such a contraption, based on precedents fetched from Utopia and the all-too-human urgings to make some aspects of life less cumbersome. The only things remaining to be said is the puzzlesome fact that other fauna, e.g. spiders building a web or bees forming honeycombs, seem also to be relying on the reciprocation of some ideal forms residing in Utopia. But this might be a question for another day!

Aristotle’s prime mover

Antonis asked:

I’m recently engaged with Aristotle’s Metaphysics, especially with Lambda book of this work. I have this question: is the First Unmoved Mover just a cause of the purpose for the inferior beings, a cause of creation, or both of them? Thank you!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I preface my reply with two observations that cannot be left unmentioned. The first of these is, that our Aristotle has gone through the filter of Aquinas, who ‘christianised’ Aristotle thoroughly and therefore ‘christianised’ our conception of his philosophy as well. This spells out as a conflict between their respective conception of “God” and “Uncaused Cause”.

Secondly, the Greeks had no creation myth (e.g. in Hesiod the world already exists before the gods are born), which means that your question already has Aquinas’ prejudice ingrained in it and inevitably associates the prime mover with a creator.

Getting around these difficulties is a bit of a juggling act for us, as we cannot simply eject from our minds the doctrines that are part of the air we breathe.

So what does Aristotle teach? In Lambda 6, that an immutable substance is the necessary precondition for a world of mutable substances to exist. This substance differs from all others in not having been a potential — it is actuality per se, hence necessary; and thus the guarantor that the world is imperishable, while everything ‘in’ the world is both contingent and perishable.

In Lambda 7 he then proceeds to explain how an immutable and immovable substance can generate motion. This is the section where interpretation is caught between ambiguity and double-dutch. He holds the prime mover to be an object of intentionality, i.e. the supremely desirable state of perfection that is associated with a divinity. But to Aristotle this can only mean existence-qua-thought, or reflexive contemplation of its own contemplative perfection, while (near the end of 1072b) “the actuality of thought is life and the prime mover is that actuality.” Yet it is by no means unequivocal whether it is the prime mover causing motion or the desire of intentional existents on being incited.

From here to Lambda 8 is a bit of a jolt. Aristotle now interrogates the heavens for a prime mover and finds himself forced to allow a plurality (49 or 55, at your choice). Scholars are divided on what to make of this self-contradiction and many suggest foul play by an editor. It seems feasible, as Lambda 9 returns to the notion of contemplative reflexivity. However, to put my tuppence-worth of argument in: his multiple prime movers do not seem incompatible to me, as any serious enquiry into causality inevitably ends up with one of two irreconcilable problems: (a) the infinite regress in which the solitary prime mover serves to collapse the trend in a single point; and (b) the branching-out of innumerable strands of actual causal processes which cannot be returned to the ‘main thread’ of regression and logically demand a catalyst of their own.

Returning to your question, the part concerning ‘purpose’ puzzles me, but (b) below might answer it. That leaves creation, and now: (a) The contents of Lambda 6-9 do not involve any creation whatever, Aristotle stressing motion throughout, which ought to set you thinking “what is being moved?” (b) Aristotle’s theology is concentrated on immovable substances without parts; it says nothing other than that their actuality makes them intentional objects — which should again encourage you to ask, “intentional objects for whom or what?”, which is incidentally an issue raised by his own pupil Theophrastos. (c) Lambda 7 could be interpreted as a hint that intelligence is the default condition of the cosmos, on which intentional beings fixate their desire.

So much for my take on it. Other than this I would recommend that you read read the relevant chapters in Guthrie’s History of Greek Philosophy VI and Barnes’ in the Cambridge Companions volume dedicate to Aristotle, for two very contrasting accounts.

Universal virtues?

Celo asked:

Are there any basic universal virtues? Do virtues change based on time, place and social context?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

A recent account of so-called universal virtues is found in a book entitled Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Petersen and Martin Seligman. Its underlying motivation was a confrontation with moral relativism, which is of course precisely the gist of your question. I have to admit that I’m wholly unconvinced of their pseudo-scientific approach and regard it as a major delusion of our era that we can learn something about human nature from tick boxes, numbered gradings, statistics and so on. Science is essentially a pursuit for knowledge in which the observer absents himself from the observations, leaving personal opinions and predilections at home while performing objective evaluations. A single glance at any moral issue, however, tells us immediately that both observer and observations are soaked in subjective choices and motives, not only in the derivation of their results but in the very criteria upon which their research is based. In short, the dictum that “all research is theory laden” holds from the outset; and on this subject matter it seems impossible to work with a wholly objective, unprejudiced methodology. In fact, a quick count of the virtuous character traits of the above authors reveals that 19 of the 26 are lifted straight out of Aristotle, i.e. 2300 years old.

Having said this (and you are at liberty to dismiss it as yet another personal opinion), I invite you to look into the history of mankind, which is stamped by an endless succession of thinkers who were all concerned with the unreliability of moral criteria by which we humans have lived. In large part of this is undeniably due to environmental factors, such as the variety of habitats in which human groups have settled and learnt how to cope with its specific survival necessities. It stands to reason that virtues enforced by polar regions must differ from those which pertain in tropical regions. They would also significantly influence the nature of their religious beliefs, which have from times immemorial affected the moral fibre of social groupings and what kinds of traits may be called ‘virtues’.

These few remarks already point the lesson that no single coherent doctrine on virtues has the slightest chance of being universally applicable, i.e. to the entire human race. Yes, every single human being might agree that murder is heinous and drug addiction corruptive, and to conclude from this that abstention from these practices is a virtue — and so with a raft of other traits. But a glance at the ‘character strengths’ of the above mentioned book shows us at once that about half of them are particular virtues and character strengths — if all humans had them, life on earth would be paradise!

Does this open the door to virtue relativism? It seems to be a fashionable point of view at present, but it comes and goes with self-doubt and skepticism. Having ‘seen through’ virtues and morals as merely conventional attitudes, a skeptic might readily conclude that no set of virtues can be intrinsically better than another. But here the little word ‘merely’ is the clue to what’s wrong with this attitude. Although on one hand the idea of a universal code of morals and virtues is a pipe dream (and would incidentally deprive countless numbers of people of their value and belief systems), the opposite notion that every human is entitled to perfect freedom in their choice of values and beliefs defeats itself, as for this to be made possible, there has to be a prior social convention in place. However, “no man is an island”; therefore congregation into associations, societies, clubs, lodges, cadres, teams et al in pursuit of common goals and interests is the first step towards shaping a convention-within-a-convention; and each of these groupings might well eye the others with suspicions as to their allegiance to the overall conventions in force (e.g. political parties).

To come to the end: Yes, there are universal virtues, though very few; and even these few are not necessarily agreeable omnilaterally. Yes, virtues depend overwhelmingly on time, place and social context. Being the beings we are, namely outcomes of evolution and habitat, it would be asking too much to expect more. Perhaps someone should for once break this monotonous obsession with virtues and morals and sing in praise of the virtues of variability and diversification, which after all enabled the species Homo to accommodate to every earthly habitat. Maybe the question is more relevant why all of us should possess the same virtues and making them all measurable on some sort of faked Richter scale of psychological fitness?

The essence of art

Therese asked:

What is the essence of art?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I hope you will not expect an essay from me on such a large and problematic issue! All I can do, is to give you some clues that might go some way toward an answer.

First, it depends on time and place — there is no universally agreed ‘essence’ of art across all cultures where it is practised. Nevertheless (point 2), underlying this diversity we find a common thread, which is the impulse to adorn and embellish ourselves and our environment, as well as making utilitarian objects attractive by beautification. But this is not yet art; nor is it unique to mankind — we share these traits with many animals which exhibit the same impulses.

So we need to look elsewhere. We need to look at how we express ourselves on occasions of high intensity. There are two ways, one associated with our relations to the gods (let’s call this ‘religion’); the other with the sorry fact that “we are all born to suffer”. When we look at our resources in these contexts, we find our imaginative faculties straining to find modes of expression and self-expression that reach for greater profundity than prayers or sacrificing, weeping or becoming depressed. We might feel something stirring in ourselves, that seeks to connect us more intimately with the gods or our grief and suffering. Then instead of mumbling and wailing, we begin to sing — as Goethe said in one of his poems, “when as a creature I fall mute from pain, a god gave me tongue to sing of what I suffer.”

Elaborating a bit: Art thrives on aspiration and inspiration. Take note that these are ‘vertical’ directions, ‘the spirit’ rising above and descending below the thresholds of quotidian experience.

It stands to reason that this is not a matter for logical analysis or verbal confetti about cause and effect. It has to do with soul, emotion, feeling and related impulses which resist clear-cut conceptualisation, although we clearly have the capacity to experience them. Though born from a religious sense, they do not compellingly involve religious faith. On the contrary, art is deeply entangled in ‘the meaning of life’; it represents the imprint of our humanness on a cold, unfeeling universe.

All this is of course thoroughly ambiguous, so that skeptical eras like ours can easily “lose the plot” and treat art as merely another form of entertainment. When this happens, it doesn’t diminish the relevance of art, but leaves a hole in our self-conception where desperation and meaninglessness creep in, which we cannot combat with the web’s “millions of songs” or the millions of paintings in our galleries and cruise ships, that are all stereotypes of each other.

At any rate, the essence of art and the essence of human life are are so tightly interwoven that one could say: Art alone of all our attainments puts our fingerprint on the world’s face, imparts meaning to it, connects us to ourselves collectively and reconciles us to the bitterness of necessity. As Nietzsche once said, “let us have art so as not to die of the truth!” Which means nothing other than that the truths of art are ingrained in us, whereas all other truths are tyrants imported from science, philosophy, religion, politics, economics, what have you. Therefore art is the mirror of our creative consciousness, whose essence it is to create the values that impart meaning to our existence. Take them away, and existence itself would hardly matter a jot.


Is hot or cold real or…?

Lucy asked:

I once read somewhere that there is not such thing as hot, cold, hard and soft. If I am right which probably not. How do people get burnt in fires or get hurt if something hard hits them?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You answered the question yourself, Lucy. It shows you have some common sense, whereas people who say or write such things talk nonsense. Maybe they just want to startle you by suppressing the context from which these claims arise — which is the molecular and physics context, not the human or animal context.

In those branches, all such impressions are forms of energy. But molecules and atoms don’t feel anything. So the next time you next break out in a sweat, don’t refer to the interaction of electromagnetic energy streams with your glands, but just say “it’s hot” as your body reacts approproriately too. These are blunt facts; and it makes no difference that some oracular fellow pretends your words don’t meet an “ulterior reality”. We don’t live in an “ulterior reality”.

Knowledge and memory

Corbin asked:

How can you lose and forget knowledge once you obtain that knowledge aren’t our minds sources of information and context that we always remember in the brain?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Your question smacks of too much faith in schematics. Biological memory isn’t flowcharting signals along a series of logic gates and fixed memory cells. Also, what the word ‘mind’ refers to, is still an issue of much contention among experts, so that any question on its capacity remains educated guesswork at best.

Nevertheless we have enough knowledge to answer the first part of your question. Memory cells are biological entities, which means they can become tired, sick or maimed like all living things. Moreover they die at an alarming rate and are never replaced by new cells. Therefore remembering knowledge or anything else relies heavily on the overall health of the brain and its ability to redistribute remembered items from one branch to another when fatalities occur. Forgetting results from severed connections among cells that hold coordinated information, but also from lack of reinforcement (knowledge never refreshed) and re-stacking priorities (old memories slipping down as new memories are added).

Apart from this, you should be aware that biological brains are not CPUs either. Neurons are scattered all over your body; and the memories they hold are to a significant degree autonomous — on the pretty sound principle that the brain should not be overloaded with information that is useless to it, as the organs in question are perfectly equipped to look after themselves. For example, athletes and performing musicians are engaged non-stop with training their body parts to perform without interference from the conscious brain.

In sum: A living body system is a great deal more complex than your question supposes, and the above should suffice to warn you that overstressing the brain’s capacities is apt to end in a lopsided viewpoint. After all, the bodies of severely brain-damaged people can still continue to function autonomously due to what is called ‘high redundancy’ in the business and ‘coping’ in ordinary parlance.