Home > Uncategorized > Are we two or one?

Are we two or one?

I just finished reading Daniel Dennet’s Consciousness Explained (see proof at the end of this post). I bought this book for Rs.750. It is definitely beyond my usual budget for a single book, but I could not resist Daniel Dennett promising to explain Consciousness to me. Read this article, and you will understand why I could not resist. This was my fourth or fifth attempt. Let me clarify here that the need for repeated attempts speaks only of my own lack of capability and not about the author’s writing skills. There were many parts in the book that went over my head, and I still am not able to get the complete picture of the book in mind, but I learnt some very interesting things.

But reading the initial chapters of this book, made me (re)realise the mysteriousness of Consciousness. Consciousness is a curious thing. Try thinking about it on these lines. Which part of you is it, that really feels the beauty of the pictures you see, feels the pain of the burnt finger (and what is it that tells you to remove the hand immediately), feels the taste of ice cream (and makes you grab your neighbour’s too), feels the enthusiasm of going to vote (and feels the pain of having to see utterly useless people being elected and causing losses running into astronomical numbers). Think hard. What do you think really is you? What is it in your body that really gets excited on playing your favourite game. What is that which thinks of various options to put your money in, balancing the tax benefits and some reasonable returns? Who/what is the you that is understanding this post as you are reading it.

You might say it is my mind. But that is really not an answer. You have just given a name for it. It is like telling somebody when he sees for the first time a yellowy shiny material, that it is gold. It does not answer much. The question that follows is, what is mind then?

Before you get bored, I will tell you that I am not here to analyse deeper questions about mind/consciousness. The purpose of this post is to explain what is called the mind-body dualism. This dualism is the theory that each one of us have a mind (some might call it the soul) which is what does all the thinking, deciding, enjoying, suffering and so on. So any kind of experience that the body has, like a knife cutting its finger, travels to the mind, and an instruction comes back from the mind, to withdraw the hand immediately. More importantly, the key aspect of the theory is that our mind and our body are two different things (that is why it is called dualism). In this sense, the mind is the non-physical you, while the body is the physical you.

The question of what non-physical means is an entirely complex question in its own right. So far there has been no evidence of anything non-physical happening in this world (though there are numerous myths). But let us for a moment assume that there is some workable definition of non-physical (though I don’t think think that even such a definition is possible).

The key argument for countering this theory is as follows. Assume that a non-physical mind exists. So whenever you cut your finger, there must be messages that reach the brain via a chain of cause and effects like the skin telling the nerves that your hand is being cut, the nerves taking the messages to the brain, the brain somehow informing the mind, the mind doing the thinking and deciding that this is not good and therefore sending back the instructions that the hand must be instantly withdrawn. So somewhere along the chain of events leading to the withdrawal of our hand, there must be a point where the physical brain, interacts with the non-physical mind.

It is this interaction which is the crux of the problem. How can a non-physical entity and a physical thing interact. Imagine anything else that we see happening in this world: opening a door, keying in text on a computer, cooking food. All of these things are only to do with physical things and in each case some energy gets converted from one form into another. At no point do we use non-physical thing to get our job done. If the starting point of any action is a thought, like say the thought of writing an email, and if that thought is non-physical (since it is in your non-physical mind), then how does it result in the actual physical activity of sending an email. At what point does this non-physical thought create a physical effect in the chain of causations from thinking to doing. And how can that happen, since the thought cannot have its energy (If you say it has, then it becomes physical).

Today, in scientific circles, it is widely believed, that consciousness is indeed an outcome of entirely physical processes of the brain. How much ever surprising it may sound, if an exact physical duplicate of your brain, complete with all the neurons and connections, is made, it will be a second you without any difference at all. In such a scenario which one will be you?? Spend some thought on that question. Our technology is nowhere near duplicating brains, but that does not prevent us from doing such intriguing thought experiments.

This is the reason why dualism is not considered to be a correct explanation of consciousness (and it also leaves out explaining how the non-physical mind works). Our physical brain is indeed the mind that we all have. The existence of a soul or a mind different from your brain is not possible. They are one and the same.

I know that this is a somewhat slippery topic and I have not covered the counter-arguments that could come up, and their responses. That would have made the piece too lengthy, and the topic is too complex for me to write much about. So let the argument continue in the comments section.

Is it obvious that I posed for it?

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Shiva.R
    May 1, 2011 at 18:24

    Ah ๐Ÿ™‚ another good one ๐Ÿ™‚ Me too cant fathom much of what you have written but i can say the whole ANSWER lies in one QUESTION ๐Ÿ™‚ Yeah

    What will you call a discover when the person who has done that is not aware of the invention by any physical or non-physical or whatever ?

    • May 2, 2011 at 07:10

      I did not understand your question. Let me see if I got your question right. Are you asking what I will call a person who discovers something which has not already been known to others?

  2. Shiva.R
    May 4, 2011 at 17:45

    Nope . what i meant was by what means or how a person invents or discovers something?

    How or what reveals it to him ? So when you start querying about the question i asked you in previous comment the answer will fall in place and if i haven’t got whole of your post to the dot i can say that , it answers everything ๐Ÿ™‚ coz., am sure you cannot coin a word for the discovery that made under the conditions i said . Even if we can find a word you can answer answer

    HOW ? ๐Ÿ™‚ ( the thing is i tried a lot to find it and later realized the answer lies in the question )

  3. Suresh
    May 5, 2011 at 09:20

    Madhav this is a very intriguing subject. I tend to think mind is nonphysical. I don’t have an explanation to prove it. It is just my gut feeling. The process of thought is what I think defines Mind. We do this all the time. Talking to your self. The amazing thing about this is you talk with your self and you can clearly hear your self in your head. How is this possible? Your ear should only transmit the sound in the sourrounding. But your inner voice is not part of this surrounding noise. It seems like the inner voice signal is transitted directly to the sound recognizing sector of the brain.

    • May 5, 2011 at 21:58

      True, such things like, your talking to yourself, is conveyed to your brain through a short cut, instead of coming back in through the ear, can happen and probably do happen. The brain does get its input from many different senses. For example, quite a bit of what we think we “taste” with our mouth, is actually done through smelling using your nose. That is why foods tend to lose taste when one has a cold and the nose is blocked.

      Strangely, the very example of talking to oneself is used by Dennett in his book, but in a different context, that can be easily explained to people like you who understand programming. What follows is one of the key points of his whole book.

      He says: When a computer runs a browser, a word processing application, a calculator an MP3 song and a calculator, it “acts” as if it is doing everything in parallel. But at the lowest level there is only one processor which can execute only one instruction at a time. So technically only one of them is being run at a time, but it gives the appearance of being a parallel processing machine.

      The key thing to be understood, he says, is that our brain is the exact opposite. Each system in our body, say the talking system, the locomotion system, the eating system, would have evolved as an independent specialist doing its job well. But there were great advantages, if all of these worked together as a unit, as if it is a single machine. Now the analogy is obvious. Each system is a processor and so our brain is actually working in parallel, but it gives the impression of it being a single processor machine. It is this “virtual” single processor which we come to think of as our mind.

      Now, coming back to your example of talking to yourself. What he suggests is that, your talking system and hearing system could have evolved independently, but they could be connected by means of your talking to yourself (even aloud, since your ear is already ready to hear sounds). I presume you are not saying that this supports the claim that the mind is non-physical (though you might have other reasons to feel so)

      But anyway, as I said before this is all really complex, and we need to do a lot of understanding before being able to argue clearly about such things. But when had lack of knowledge ever stopped us from discussing things? ๐Ÿ™‚

  1. July 12, 2011 at 07:03
  2. August 6, 2011 at 15:50
  3. January 1, 2012 at 07:38
  4. January 17, 2012 at 06:58
  5. May 6, 2012 at 11:11

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