Indelibility of consciousness

Lowell asked:

What evidence exists for the idea that consciousness is indelible?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

I take it, Lowell, that by ‘indelible’ you mean something like ‘indestructible’. Consciousness, once it exists (and we are not asking how it comes into existence) cannot be wiped out. Although its nature could change in all sorts of ways, some of which we might not be able to imagine.

The evidence is not empirical evidence. It comes from logic. This is a page for philosophy not theology or apologetics. Maybe there’s a God. Or maybe the Devil rules the universe. Or nothing, it makes no difference so far as the logic of the argument is concerned.

The argument proceeds via two ‘lemmas’, or subsidiary proofs.

Lemma 1. Whatever is contingently possible is necessary in infinite time.

It is possible that it will rain tomorrow, and also possible that it will not rain tomorrow. Is it also possible that it will never rain again, anywhere on Earth or indeed anywhere else in the Universe? Why not? Maybe the day after tomorrow the Universe will be wiped out of existence and therefore there will be no more rain, anywhere, ever.

But now we have to deal with the tricky question of infinity. Never say ‘never’. ‘Never’ refers to infinite future time, and I’m not sure that either you or I really grasp what that means. The Universe could have gone out of existence for a very, very long time (pick a number, any number) but it is always possible that another Universe will come into existence, and that there will be rain, on some planet in some solar system in some galaxy in that Universe.

You might think that this falls short of showing that rain must occur at some time in the far future. When in geometry one says that, ‘parallel lines meet at infinity’ that doesn’t mean that the lines actually meet. It’s more like a convention. But our claim does not rely on an analogy with geometry.

Nor is it like mathematics where (as Wittgenstein once remarked) as yet there is no proof or disproof that a sequence of four 7s occurs in the expansion of Pi. A disproof could yet appear, in which case we would know, as well as we know the truth of any arithmetical statement, that it does not. But this is something we might never be able to ascertain, either way. Given our present state of ignorance, no-one can say now that four 7s ‘must’ appear somewhere in the expansion of Pi.

Rain, by contrast, is a contingent phenomenon. It is not, like the expansion of Pi, the product of some necessary rule. In the absence of any mathematical or logical rule that would restrict what is or is not ‘really possible’, all contingent phenomena must be realized in infinite future time. If, in infinite future time, it can rain again then it must rain again.

Lemma 2. The identity of consciousness is not dependent, in whole or in part, on spatio-temporal continuity.

This is a claim that would be strongly contested by any philosopher of a materialist persuasion. The objection isn’t just the implication that consciousness is not constituted from matter. That would be to beg the question. Rather, the problem concerns the definition of identity, or what it is for some entity, identified at time t1 to be ‘one and the same’ as an entity identified at a later time t2.

Let’s say that while visiting your house I carelessly knock over a precious vase, bequeathed to you by your grandmother. ‘I know a shop where I can find exactly the same vase,’ I say. ‘It won’t be the same vase because it won’t be the one my grandmother bought back from her trip to Brighton in 1955.’ There’s no answer to that, except for me to get out the Araldite and laboriously stick the pieces back together.

After the universe has come to an end and another universe has come into existence, there is nothing, in logic, that could count as the vase in question ‘coming back’. Maybe there will be another Brighton just like Brighton on the South coast of England, etc. but the vase that comes from there won’t be one and the same vase. That possibility is ruled out by the definition of identity in terms of spatio-temporal continuity.

But now let’s suppose that the Bomb drops. The last thing you remember as you looked out of the window of your apartment, is a blinding white flash and the agonizing sensation of your flesh being burned off your bones. And now, here you are, awake and intact, in a place you’ve never seen before. You are alive. Maybe this is Heaven, or Hell, or just some planet in some Universe far, far in the future.

Materialists will come back at this saying there is no way on this picture to distinguish between ‘true’ and ‘false’ memories. Which is true. But it is also true that nothing can override your subjective certainty that you have, indeed, survived a direct hit by an atomic bomb. You know that you are you, just as surely as you know this every time you wake up in the morning. Run through the thought experiment a few times, if you are not sure, until you are convinced.

To prove: consciousness is indelible.

From Lemma 2, we know that consciousness — that is to say, you — can always come back at some time in the future. From Lemma 1, we know that if you can come back you will come back. Therefore, you can never we wiped out permanently. Your consciousness is indelible. Q.E.D.

Locus of mind-body interaction

Ladevel asked:

‘In resolving the problem of interaction, Epiphenomenalism shows itself to be a stronger theory than Cartesian Substance Dualism.’ How do I offer a critical analysis and evaluate this in a high school essay for philosophy? I need a solid argument that encompasses objections, weaknesses etc but also arrives at a solid, well justified conclusion.

Answer by Gershon Velvel

Don’t you love it when philosophy instructors tell you in advance what conclusion you should come to in your essay? What if you decided, after looking at the arguments for and against, that substance dualism is the stronger theory? Would you automatically get a D?

It is at least arguable that epiphenomenalism as a solution to the mind-body problem — the theory according to which the brain ’emits’ consciousness in a similar way to a factory emitting smoke — is a feeble attempt to account for our seeming awareness of something ‘inner’. When an epiphenomenalist writes, ‘I believe in epiphenomenalism,’ the causal chain that led to those words appearing on paper or on a computer monitor is physical all the way. The ‘inner’ never came into it, because according to epiphenomenalism, the ‘inner’ is merely an inert by-product of physical processes.

On this count, at least, substance dualism is a clear winner. As Descartes observes in his own case, I am aware of something — my thinking, my experiencing — that could exist even if the physical world did not. When the dualist writes, ‘I believe in dualism,’ the causal chain goes from the actions of ‘mental substance’ — my Cartesian ‘soul’ — to changes in physical substance.

But how could such action, or interaction, possibly take place? Where is the locus of mind-body interaction? This is a point on which Descartes was pressed by several critics, including Pierre Gassendi and Princess Elisabeth. That’s only part of the problem, because the idea of physical changes being brought about by something outside the physical realm clashes with the Law of Conservation of Energy.

The latter, apparently, wasn’t an issue for Descartes because his physics was non-Newtonian. In Cartesian physics, no physical force is required to change the direction of motion of the ‘animal spirits’. If that seems crazy to us today, remember that for Descartes, mental substance and physical substance are maintained in existence by God’s continuous action. The ‘laws’ of physics are based purely on the geometry of extended bodies. The only violations that these laws forbid are geometrical violations (for example, two bodies existing in the same place at the same time). The rest is up to God, who by decree has endowed mental substance with the power to affect, and be effected by the animal spirits.

Well, of course, we don’t believe that now. Our physics is Newtonian (at a first approximation), not Cartesian. But, still, given indeterminacy at the quantum level it not inconceivable that, God or not, mental substance might still have the power to alter local probabilities without violating any laws.

For example, suppose I discover to my extreme surprise that whenever I think of a proposition from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, say, ‘The world is all that is the case,’ the words appear on the fluorescent tube light in my kitchen. The energy emitted by the fluorescent tube remains the same, all that is altered is the pattern of ‘random’ photon emission. That would be very spooky, and one would want to know the explanation. But one candidate explanation which can’t be logically ruled out is that I did it, myself, by a form of telekinesis. Maybe with God’s help. But the laws of nature remain more or less intact. (No mentally knocking vases off mantelpieces, for example.)

The locus of interaction at first sight seems a more intractable problem. Descartes said that this occurs in the pineal gland located in the brain. At what location, exactly? You might be thinking that, as a ‘unextended substance’, the soul could only occupy a geometrical point. But this is wrong. The soul is not in space, because it does not possess any of the essential attributes of extension. It acts  at a specific place, which could be the whole body, or the brain, or the pineal gland — whichever hypothesis seems the most plausible.

Our naive view of causation requires contiguity of cause and effect. Gravity, which at first sight seems to be an example of action at a distance, in fact (according to physics) involves a ‘gravitational field’. Our experience of causes and effects is an acceptable starting point for defining ‘causation’, but it is only a starting point. Descartes believed that he had given a powerful argument against the idea that all causation involves physical pushes and pulls.

Is Cartesian substance dualism a ‘strong’ theory? That all depends on how favourable you are to the alternative view to either substance dualism or epiphenomenalism: namely physical monism. There’s no question that if you give up physicalism, there’s a price to pay, but the question remains open. In academic philosophy, doubts about physicalism are on the rise, though relatively few philosophers would be prepared to go the whole hog and defend Descartes, as I would.

Sartre on radical freedom

Chris asked:

True or False? — Sartre is a believer in radical free will. His ontology of free will is similar to the ontology of free will offered by the substance dualists.

Answer by Gershon Velvel

True and false.

Sartre has a view of freedom which fully merits the description ‘radical’. However, if Sartre’s ontology of free will was really ‘similar’ to the ontology of free will offered by the substance dualists then he would be a substance dualist. And he most certainly is not.

Sartre is not a dualist or a monist. A monist believes in one basic substance: matter, or the subject matter of physics. In Sartre’s metaphysics (as developed in Being and Nothingness) there is absolutely nothing to say about what ‘is’, as such. Rather, there are two fundamentally different ways of approaching ‘what is’: under the category of the ‘For-itself’, and under the category of the ‘In-itself’.

Who is doing this ‘approaching’? The For-itself. The In-itself is inert. It doesn’t ‘do’ anything or ‘approach’ anything. We, that is to say human beings — each of us individually an exemplification of the ‘For-itself’ — make sense of reality by applying one or the other fundamental category.

But this is where things get tricky. Because each of us, although an exemplification of the ‘For-itself’ is also an exemplification of the ‘In-itself’. We possess physical bodies, and the molecules and cells that make up our physical bodies obey the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology without room for exception.

Descartes, by contrast, held that there is a loophole in the laws of physics which allows an immaterial soul to interact with the body’s ‘animal spirits’, the physical conduit for all perception and action. For obscure reasons, this interaction was supposed to take place in the pineal gland. — I don’t think that this is such a bad theory, if you explore all the options, but it is not a theory that Sartre would ever have considered. He didn’t need to.

And yet, despite this, Sartre states, unequivocally, that if human beings are free then determinism is false. (I don’t have the reference to hand, but he says this in more than one place in Being and Nothingness.)

I think he is wrong about this. In order to make the point about freedom that he is making, it isn’t necessary to say anything about the thesis of determinism. It’s completely irrelevant. I suspect that Sartre identifies determinism with the much more dubious claim that, in principle, any physical system is predictable. And that would wreck his account of freedom. It is perfectly possible to hold that determinism is true, but that some physical systems (e.g. those that have a brain) are unpredictable in principle.

Given unpredictability in principle, this is all Sartre needs to defend ‘radical’ freedom. His fundamental point about decision and action is that every situation is necessarily unique. There is not, and could not be, any kind of ‘template’ that one could apply (e.g. ‘This is an X-type situation, and I am a Y-type person, therefore I must do Z’). Anyone can choose to do anything within his or her physical capacity, in any situation, regardless of any choices made in the past. That’s all just water under the bridge.

There are two reasons why our actions generally do not cause any surprise to those observing us. The first is the anodyne point that most of the time there is no reason for us to deviate from what we have done on previous occasions. As Aristotle noted, habit is the basic building block of character. F.H. Bradley in Ethical Studies considers the example of someone who chooses to do the ethically right thing despite strong disincentives, while a friend remarks, ‘I’m surprised that you did that.’ The angry response is, ‘You should have known me better!’

The second, connected reason is that the vast majority of the choices that confront us every day are not life changing. But when they are life changing, that is when Sartre would say, we have to be vigilantly on guard against the bad faith of believing that there is such a thing as ‘what a person like me would do’, or ‘what a person in my position would do’. You are on your own, without a rule book. It is up to you to come up with an original and creative solution to the problem that now confronts you.

Memento mori

Clint asked:

What memento mori wants to tell us? 

Answer by Gershon Velvel

‘Remember that you’re gonna die!’

Glancing through the first few results on Google, you might have seen this:

…the medieval Latin Christian theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits…

or this:

…the ancient practice of reflection on mortality that goes back to Socrates, who said…

(You have to click to see how that sentence finishes but I’m guessing, from my recollection of Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, that it has something to do with Socrates’ belief that the body is the ‘prison house of the soul’.)

But that wasn’t what you wanted to know, Clint, was it? Why do we have to reflect on our inevitable death? Really? What’s the use of it?

As philosophers do, I’d like to consider a thought experiment, as a way of aiding our imagination, or ‘pumping intuitions’. Suppose that you found out about an evil conspiracy involving your death, or apparent death. You are going to be secretly kept alive and tortured, for weeks, months, years, incessantly without mercy or relief. But until then, you still have your life to live — supposedly?

There are various ways you might try to fight this, refuse to accept that this will happen to you, or look for ways to escape (a kind of ‘Logan’s Run’ scenario). But let’s assume that the conspirators are some powerful alien species that holds all human life in contempt. They are super beings — and you don’t have any Kryptonite.

Wouldn’t the best course of action be to forget? The time for the execution of your sentence is approaching, day by day, hour by hour. How could one think of anything else but how all this is going to end? If, maybe, you could get hypnotised so that the knowledge was erased from your memory at least you could enjoy the life you had left. That seems to me the only rational thing to do under the circumstances.

The torture scenario isn’t just something I made up. It is very real. It’s called ‘going to Hell’. And even if you are Heaven bound, there’s possibly thousands of earth years (according to one estimate) of painful Purgatory where every sin you ever committed is examined from every angle, like in a court case but a thousand times worse.

People believe this stuff, and still go on living regardless. You try to reduce your sinning to a minimum, repent and repent, etc. Personally, I think hypnosis is still the better alternative.

To me, necessary reflection on death only really makes sense if death is really death, the end of everything, no afterlife, no post mortem examination of how well or badly you lived, just… nothing.

Just Nothing. Can you imagine Nothing? Can you conceive of the possibility that at some point in the future there will no longer be any ‘you’?

Speaking for myself, some days I can and some days I can’t imagine it. I  wonder whether knowing I am going to die does, or should make me pause before spending my time in frivolous pleasures like going down the pub, or glorying in my academic achievements, or gloating over my priceless collection of early Star Trek figurines.

It’s all going to go, will be gone when Nothing comes. No more beer. No more glittering prizes. No more Star Trek.

Then again, I wonder whether my being here at all isn’t the bigger mystery, considering how vastly improbable it was that I should ever have come into existence. Have you ever considered that, Clint? It’s a doozy.

All in all, I think the jury’s still out on whether we should spend much time, or any time thinking about death and what it means. I guess part of assuming the role of the ‘philosopher’ it is inevitable that one will spend more time thinking about death than the average, and possibly more than is good for you. But there you have it.

Evidential argument against God trumped

Philo asked:

Does the following successfully establish a presumption of strong global atheism?

“Define strong global atheism as the view that there is no god. There is a presumption of strong global atheism because theists propose the addition of a supernatural entity (a god) to what is already known to exist (the natural world). That is, theists make an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of such evidence, strong global atheism is warranted.”

Answer by Gershon Velvel

As a would-be atheist, I am the first to admit that there is a lot of stuff I don’t know. To paraphrase a remark I heard somewhere, ‘there are unknown unknowns’. It’s bad enough not knowing stuff, worse when you’re not even able to form a conception of the kind of thing that might be missing from your inventory of knowledge.

Not knowing what I don’t know in relation to the God question, I feel somewhat queasy about any argument based on evidence or the lack of it. By saying that ‘evidence is required’, you are issuing a challenge, a challenge you believe cannot be met. But you are leaving the larger claim completely unchallenged: the claim that the God-hypothesis makes some sort of sense. If it didn’t make sense, how do you even know what you are talking about?

First of all, we need to explore a relative side issue. Does the claim that some ‘supernatural entity’ exists require ‘extraordinary evidence’?

It depends. The supernatural entity in question might be rather small and localized: a poltergeist, for example. Admittedly, if someone makes the claim that they have a poltergeist in their home, you are going to want to sift the evidence very carefully indeed. But if you are in the living room, with all your fancy electronic equipment, and objects start flying across the room for no reason at all, there comes a point where you have to say that the evidence of something matching the description of ‘poltergeist’ is overwhelming.

Is this likely to happen? I don’t believe so. David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion makes the point that even with seemingly ‘overwhelming evidence’ you have to consider the balance of probability: the chance that science is fundamentally flawed, and the natural world is not all there is, versus the chance that someone has played a very clever trick or that you’re having a hallucination, or whatever. But then again, if poltergeists became a regular occurrence, that argument would start looking rather thin.

Back to God. There is a case for saying that the flaw in the evidential argument gives the theist all they need. If you allow that the notion of God as a supernatural entity makes sense, then you have to allow that there is some possible world (I mean logically possible not ‘nomologically possible’) in which God exists. God isn’t just some very powerful supernatural being. (That would be the Devil.) God is a necessary being. So far as anyone existing in that logically possible world — call it the God-world — is concerned, God exists in ‘all possible worlds’. By a simple application of modal logic, if God exists as a necessary being in some possible world, then God exists in all possible worlds. Ergo, God exists.

I’ve just offered a version of St Anselm’s ontological argument updated with contemporary possible world semantics. As it stands it sounds pretty convincing, doesn’t it? Intuitively, it just seems a mistake to concede that much to the theist. Then again, maybe you could resist the argument by tweaking your modal logic so that ‘all possible worlds’ means something different in different possible worlds (look up ‘possible worlds’ and ‘accessibility relations’) but that looks like desperation to me.

Sins of the nihilist

Kenny asked:

Could a non-believer in a god sin? 

Colin asked:

How would a philosopher evaluate Aleister Crowley: ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’? 

Answer by Gershon Velvel

What is a ‘sin’? I read in Wikipedia:

“In a religious context, sin is the act of transgression against divine law. Sin can also be viewed as any thought or action that endangers the ideal relationship between an individual and God; or as any diversion from the perceived ideal order for human living. ‘To sin’ has been defined from a Greek concordance as ‘to miss the mark’.”

What is wrong with that statement? — You might think that the last sentence doesn’t seem to fit here at all.

Aristotle in his Ethics gives the example of an archer aiming a bow to illustrate ethical judgement. Making correct judgements is something that requires care and the appropriate training. In archery, you have to allow for the distance of the target, the direction and strength of the wind and so on. In a competition, where you have the final shot and need to score at least a ‘9’ and your arrow only hits the ‘6’ ring, you’ve lost, and maybe your team lost too.

And so it is, the Greeks thought, with ethical judgements. When you need to take care, and you ‘miss the mark’, that’s something you might regret, possibly for a long time. The assumption here is that one is aiming for the mark. We want to do good, do the right thing.

It might be something seemingly trivial. The doughnuts in the supermarket you thought were jam doughnuts turned out to have a vanilla filling. No big deal, but suppose that this was a cancer patient’s dying request. Regardless of how your friend takes the disappointment, you castigate yourself for not taking sufficient care to look at the label first. The shelf said ‘doughnuts’, and you assumed ‘jam doughnuts’. And now it’s too late to make amends. Your lack of care is the thing that rankles. You feel guilt.

Not a ‘sin’? What would Jesus say? Callousness, not taking care, is the ultimate sin in a religion based on the precept of ‘love’. Let’s suppose that just as you were approaching the doughnut shelf, you remembered that you had to make an appointment to get your piano tuned. That stray ‘selfish’ thought at a time when your friend’s need should have been uppermost in your mind was all the distraction you needed. — It’s not difficult to see why a thinker like Nietzsche would discern a cruel streak underlying the religion of loving kindness.

Then what about real criminals? The story, as a Greek would tell it, is that through a series of ‘missed shots’, you deviate further and further away from a correct view of the target. For example, you come to believe that a successful robbery is something to be proud of, rather than ashamed. This is the staple of gangster movies: loyalty, obedience, punishment and reward are concepts that every gang member implicitly understands. As the saying goes, ‘there’s honour amongst thieves.’

With God in the picture, it seems we are playing a different game entirely. Whatever we conceive as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, the word of God is the final arbiter. Ethical laws are God’s laws. The religious concept of ‘sin’, in essence, recognizes the fundental difference between which actions you or I call ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and those which are so in reality. No room for quibbling.

God doesn’t need to give a reason for His commands. If the command is, ‘Never mix cotton and wool in the same garment,’ as the priests of ancient Israel told, then regardless of the whys or wherefores, by ignoring God’s law you have defied God. You have deliberately stuck your finger in God’s eye. No punishment is too severe for one who defies God.

‘Missing the mark’ in an archery competition or some other sport, is something to regret. You mentally go through the motions, trying to work out where you went wrong. We all make judgements we regret. The feeling of guilt implies something more, over and above regret: the sense of accountability. It needn’t be accountability to another person or persons. As a would-be follower of Aleister Crowley, you might feel guilt about failing to take an opportunity to enjoy carnal delights because of the vestiges of a ‘conscience’ instilled by your strict religious upbringing. You have sinned against your ‘true nature’.

As a non-believer and nihilist, this makes sense to me, although, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, sin is ‘not one of my words’. Things are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for me simply by virtue of the things I care about. When I aim to do better, and do worse, then given an appropriate context that is something to be feel bad about, guilty, even. But ‘sin’? Pass.

A fate worse than death

Rehan asked:

If human have an innate will to survive, shown by the fear of death, does this not prove there is no afterlife? Why would human fear death if there was something after it?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

People live from day to day, nourishing their hopes and dreams, and also fearful of bad things that could happen to them, like illness or injury. Or death. Experience — for most of us, this means watching the TV news — teaches us about all the good or bad things that could happen. Like winning fifty million on the Lottery, or being brutally raped and murdered by terrorists, and everything in between.

Is that it? Not at all. Not a bit of it. The human mind and frame are limited in their capacity for happiness and pleasure. There is only so much you can take before you are completely, and blissfully sated. For me, freshly fried fish in golden batter with chips and lashings of salt and vinegar goes a long way towards achieving that goal, but everyone has his or her own preference.

As for the bad, that’s a different story. Because there is no limit to how bad things can get. That’s how the famous mathematician Pascal was able to persuade himself that religion is the only rational option. Even the slightest chance of eternal damnation is sufficient argument for treading the strict path of righteousness, which for him meant Christianity.

You’ll find plenty of discussion on the Internet of ‘Pascal’s Wager’ as it is called, many complaining that Pascal’s argument is less than compelling. Why should the slightest, slightest chance of something bad bother me? The problem is that people seem to have such feeble imaginations. George Bernard Shaw, in his play Saint Joan, with more than a bit of tongue in cheek describes Hell as place where people are drunk all the time, a never-ending party for the wicked. Then again, if you think about it, the impossibility of ever getting the chance to sober up is a pretty hellish prospect.

Today, Hell has become glamourised. Hell is cool. Watching TV episodes of Lucifer or Constantine, it seems the human taste for sexy devils and demons is nothing short of voracious.

By stark contrast, hidden away on the Pathways web site is this description of Hell excerpted from the Bahar-e-Shariat:

“The Kafirs (infidels) in Hell will have to drink boiling oil-water, after which their bowels and intestines and stomach will be break into pieces. The consumed water will then come out of their stomach like curry and will flow down to their feet. The skins of their bodies will become thick up to 42 yards. Their tongues will be hanging out of mouths up to a length of two miles. The passerby will walk trampling upon these tongues.” (Six of the Best: Glyn Hughes)

In the original text, the account is a lot longer and even more fearsome. The description of Paradise from the same book is, for me, far less convincing. As I said before, there is only so much pleasure a man (or woman) can take before one is sated.

I don’t actually believe that I will be going to Heaven or Hell. But what’s belief got to do with it? What does it matter whether you believe or disbelieve? Those are just things people say. What people say ultimately doesn’t mean a thing. Truth be told, death as the absolute end of everything, death with no afterlife, isn’t so fearsome. If you’ve reached the absolute end then you’re safe. You should be afraid to be alive.