Some Thoughts For T.

I would be very interested in hearing the views of the person who commented with a comparison of traditional doctors practicing trad and holistic medicines. Your views on that as well – if this is something you can share.

Hi T., thanks for your comment. I think I can share some of my thoughts, but first I need to admit that I have received some training as a “traditional doctor” and have an M.D. (although I abandoned clinical medicine as a career over a decade ago), have worked in mainstream science as a research scientist, and am currently employed as an imaging scientist / scientific programmer / software engineer. I have also finished a Master’s program in biostatistics about a year ago! So, I might have some natural bias towards mainstream science and medicine.

That said, I am most definitely not a fundamentalist Materialist. By “materialist”, I mean that philosophy — sometimes it seems to me to be a full-blown religion unto itself — that contends that there exists nothing except matter and the four forces of nature. Once can make these minimalist assumptions (Occam’s Razor; the Wikipedia entry has some interesting stuff about Controversial Aspects of the Razor and Anti-Razors) and go quite far, but just because you assume something doesn’t make it true. For example, they are now beginning to consider the possibility that there are actually five forces of nature; so the assumption that are are only four forces of nature might actually be incorrect.

I have friends who are true-believers in materialism. Their argument in support of materialism often seems to be as follows.

  1. Based on the materialist philosophy, science has accomplished impressive things: computers, modern medicine, the NASA space program, etc.
  2. Therefore, the materialist philosophy is correct.

I hope you can see the fallacy of this argument. An analogy might be negative numbers (or irrational numbers, or transcendental numbers, or imaginary numbers) in mathematics; one can derive a lot of true theorems based on the assumption that there are no negative numbers (or irrational numbers, etc.), but that doesn’t make the assumption correct.

Another argument in support of materialism that my friends seem to use is:

  1. All smart people believe in the materialist philosophy.
  2. Therefore, the materialist philosophy is correct.

I hope you can see the fallacy of this argument as well.

Another thing that I have noticed my materialist friends doing is mistaking a scientific model for reality itself. They are forgetting that The Map Is Not The Territory.

I would consider myself an open-minded skeptic; open-minded enough to consider the possibility that there’s more to reality than physical matter and the four (five?) forces of nature. Still, I have become a little pessimistic about the ability of the human mind to understand certain things, especially consciousness itself; in this respect, I think my sympathies lie with “the New Mysterians”. This doesn’t mean that I think that no research should be done on consciousness, or that you should abandon your investigation of the relation between consciousness and BodyTalk; it just means that I think it quite possible that the human mind cannot understand how the human mind works. My friends who have a strong faith in materialism (they are, after all, true-believers) insist that science will some day explain everything; this sounds to me like promissory materialism.

See also my recent post about the Decline Effect; just because something makes it into the scientific literature doesn’t mean that it’s true. Also, something that always bugged me during my medical training was that some of the things being taught didn’t seem to have any basis in science; instead, they seemed to be traditions that were foisted onto mainstream medicine by strong-willed — but wrong — scientists/physicians in positions of power.
See, e.g., this recent online article about spinal fusion. This reminds me of an old saying: “If you go to a barber, he’ll tell you that you need a haircut.”

For some thoughts about the problems with materialism,
I strongly suggest the book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith
by Stephen Barr, who is a practicing physicist. Another book of potential interest is Charles Tart’s The End of Materialism, but I have to admit that I haven’t finished that one yet.

Whence Consciousness?

Do Subatomic Particles Have Free Will?

Seems to me a more satisfying hypothesis of where consciousness comes from. Better than the currently fashionable thinking that it is an epiphenomenon arising from highly complex interactions between neurons, which for me is deeply unsatisfying, mere hand-waving, not better than an appeal to magic. Sure, a highly complex neural network might result in behavior that simulates consciousness, might even pass the Turing Test, but I doubt that the resulting system would actually be conscious. I think it would instead be a Philosophical Zombie.

Boiling water will spontaneously form ordered columns moving up and down, from bottom to surface and back. This is a classic example of self-organization, where something new arises spontaneously from the collective actions of a group of simple units. But does this mean that if we boil the water in a special way (e.g., boil it at superheated temperatures, or boil it for a very long time, or boil it very quickly) or boil special water (heavy water?), then the water will spontaneously develop consciousness? Sure, it’s possible, but I doubt it.

Maybe I am too dour and skeptical and should just buy into the neural network hypothesis?

Addendum (6/29/09): Conway’s Proof Of The Free Will Theorem: “If there exist experimenters with (some) free will, then elementary particles also have (some) free will.” The Free Will Theorem (PDF file); see also The Strong Free Will Theorem (PDF file). Via MetaFilter. Apparently, the term “free will” may be too politically charged for some: “If you don’t like the term Free Will, call it Free Whim – this is the Free Whim Theorem”.

I am currently reading a 1989 paper by Colin McGinn entitled Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem? (Mind, New Series, Vol. 98, No. 391 (Jul., 1989), pp. 349-366). In the second footnote, Dr. McGinn writes:

I would also classify panpsychism as a constructive solution, since it attempts to explain consciousness in terms of properties of the brain that are as natural as consciousness itself. Attributing specks of proto-consciousness to the constituents of matter is not supernatural in the way postulating immaterial substances or divine interventions is; it is merely extravagant. I shall here be assuming that panpsychism, like all other extant constructive solutions, is inadequate as an answer to the mind-body problem — as (of course) are the supernatural ‘solutions’. I am speaking to those who still feel perplexed (almost everyone, I would think, at least in their heart).

The term panpsychism is new to me. But it sounds akin to what Conway and Kochen claim to have proven. I wonder whether Dr. McGinn is still alive, and knows about Conway and Kochen’s work. Hmm, Wikipedia says that Dr. McGinn accepted a position at the University of Miami in 2006.