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.