Monday, February 6, 2023

Another Case of Physicalism Yielding Massive Reality Denial

It is a very great fallacy of try to reduce the problem of human mentality (the problem of explaining human minds and human mental phenomena) into some super-shrunken problem called "the problem of consciousness," or maybe "the problem of experience." The people who try to do such a thing are like someone who tries to reduce astronomy into a mere problem of explaining comets. Just as explaining comets is only a tiny sliver of the job of astronomy, explaining consciousness is only a tiny sliver of problem of explaining minds. 

The silliness of people who pose a mere "problem of consciousness" or "problem of experience"  rather than a problem of human mentality is illustrated in the visual below. The word cloud on the screen shows a vast diversity of mental things to be explained: imagination, selfhood, ideation, appreciation, memorization, morality, recognition, consciousness, emotions, speech, comprehension, creativity, recall, insight, beliefs, reminiscence, trances, introspection, pleasure, pain, reading, writing, awareness, perception, knowledge, recognition, attention, personality, fascination, interest, visualization, ESP, dreaming, volition, OBEs and NDEs. But the person in front of the screen has foolishly ignored this great complexity and phenomenal diversity, and has wrongly stated that all that he needs to explain is consciousness.

problem of consciousness

Recently we had the publication of an essay by a physicalist who offers an attempt to solve what his essay describes as the problem of consciousness, with what his essay brags is an "ingenuously simple solution" to such a problem.  The physicalist attempted to explain the mind like this:

(1) He attempts to reduce a human mind to a mere perception of external objects. 

(2) He then says that your perceptions are simply the objects you are perceiving. 

Voila! Through such lunacy, the mind is eliminated. According to the physicalist, you simply are what you perceive. So when you look at some dog poop, you are the dog poop. 

This is very crazy indeed. Yes, you have perceptions, but you also have a mind, that includes beliefs, memories, ideas, knowledge, and many other things. There is nothing known in the physical world that corresponds to such things. No one has ever been able to observe beliefs, memories, ideas or knowledge in the human brain, and any one claiming to see such things in a brain is just someone seeing what he wants to see, like someone seeing the face of Jesus in his toast. 

Our physicalist writes this:

"So what is your experience? It is the subset of physical objects taking place relative to your body. The mind is identical with the (relative) object."

I notice a very big error in the quote above. We first have a question "what is your experience?" The answer then refers to "the mind," as if a mind is mere experience. No, a mind is an extremely diverse reality vastly more than just "your experience." Your experience is partially a stream of sensations that changes from day to day and hour to hour. Your mind is a stable thing that includes very much knowledge that persists from year to year, as well as beliefs and attitudes that can stay the same year after year. Your mind is vastly more than just your experience, and your mind is vastly more stable than your experience, which changes from hour to hour. 

Our physicalist states that his theory "has no place either for ideas or thinkers, only for relative objects that bring each other into existence by means of mutual causal relations." This is just a very silly form of reality denial. There really are ideas and thinkers, and any philosophy of mind that "has no place" for them is nonsense. The idea that there are no ideas is just itself a very dumb idea, like denying the existence of the sun and the moon.  Our physicalist is like a person who has written a book trying to prove there are no such things as books. 

What about all the mental realities other than perception? Our physicalist who has denied all such things makes a feeble attempt to make his denials not so embarrassing by claiming that imagination is a "special case" of perception. No, imagination is not a "special case" of perception. Perception is when you see things with your eyes open. Imagination (which can be entirely non-visual) is when you can get ideas about things you may have never seen. Imagination can involve eyes-closed visualization of something you have never seen. Or imagination can involve something that is not at all visual. I may imagine the abstract idea that an extraterrestrial civilization might be killed by a cosmic gamma ray burst, without having any visual image associated with such a thing. Imagination is not perception, and is not a "special case" of perception. 

Our physicalist then refers to intentionality, first-person perspective and self-consciousness, and claims that these are mere "epicycles." His references to epicycles is extremely inappropriate. In the philosophy of science, an epicycle refers to some imaginative and not-very-plausible hypothetical detail dreamed up to explain some shortfall in your theory. Things such as intentionality and first-person perspective and self-consciousness are not imaginative hypotheses but indisputable realities, and they were not invented to help anyone solve shortcomings of theories. 

What's going on in the physicalist's essay is mainly just massive reality denial, done in the service of physicalism (the utterly erroneous belief that nothing exists but the physical). He says that his theory of the mind "has no place for anything but objects in relation to each other (relative objects)." That's the most massive kind of reality denial, because so much of reality is reality other than "objects." Physicalism should come with a warning label like this: "CAUTION: This philosophical assumption can lead to reality denial a thousand times more severe than Holocaust denialism." Because physicalism is a position radically opposed to the massive irrefutable reality of human mental experience that is not physical, many a physicalist will become the most extreme type of denialist. 

Physicalism is like this

The physicalist's reasoning I have mentioned is an example of what you might call "desert-island reasoning." By "desert-island reasoning" I mean the kind of armchair reasoning someone might do after being stranded alone on a desert island, without having access to any books or communication devices. Desert-island reasoning is not based on studying the details of human experience or the details of the human body or the details of the physical universe. A good sign you have some desert-island reasoning is when you get a long essay (like the one I have quoted from) that does not include any mention of specific facts or the experiences of specific people, and does not include a link to any external writing. Desert-island reasoning will not get you very far in understanding minds. To get some good ideas about what a human mind is:

(1) Study at great length the vast diversity of human experience, including anomalous human experiences and anomalous medical case histories.

(2) Study at great length the organization and functional complexity and vast diversity of engineering effects in human bodies and in other organisms.

(3) Study neuroscience and the behavior of neuroscientists with a very close examination of the current methodological shortfalls of neuroscientists, a close examination of the church-like belief community conformism and overconfidence of neuroscientists,  and also a very close examination of the many physical shortfalls of the human brain that undermine claims that the brain is the source of the mind and the storage place of memories.

(4) Study the sudden origin of the universe and the evidence for enormous fine-tuning in the fundamental constants and laws of the universe. 

(5) Study carefully the biggest mysteries science has not been able to explain, such as the origin of life and the progression from a speck-sized zygote to a full human body. 

All of this studying and additional thought  may lead you to eventually get some good ideas about the nature of the human mind, perhaps something like what I discuss here. You won't get very far by lazily ignoring such studies, and by merely trying to use a little armchair reasoning to get some "ingeniously simple solution" to long-standing problems of the mind. 


Monday, January 30, 2023

The Vague Unfounded Boasts of Biology Sound Like the Vague Unfounded Boasts of Astrophysics

An article at the Big Think website has a title sounding like it might be an example of scientist humility. The title is "Why the origin of life and the Universe itself might be forever unknowable." But despite the humble-sounding title, the article has several examples of unfounded boasts of knowledge. The author is astrophysicist Adam Frank, and Frank is a little frank, but not nearly frank enough. 

The article starts out with the preposterous "we're almost done" insinuation that scientists have only two explanatory problems left: the problem of the origin of the universe and the origin of the life. We read this: 

"Humanity has two old, profound questions. The first is about the origin of the Universe; the second about the origin of life."

To the contrary, humanity has a host of unsolved explanatory problems, including the unsolved problem of the origin of mind, the unsolved problem of how memory and learning occur, the unsolved problem of origin of the human species, the unsolved problem of the origin of language, the unsolved problem of the composition of the universe, the unsolved problem of the origin of very complex and organized biological innovations, and the unsolved problem of the origin of the adult human body, involving an utterly mysterious progression from a speck-sized zygote to the vast organization of the human body, a structure not specified by DNA (contrary to many erroneous claims). Human knowledge about reality is merely fragmentary. 

Frank gives us the following lame attempt to explain how planet Earth got all its organisms:

"We know that evolution on Earth (and probably anywhere else in the Universe) works by a process called descent with modification. Organisms reproduce and pass their genes on to their children. Every now and then, random mutations occur. If they lead to better fitness within the environment, entirely new organisms may appear."

There are very many reasons why this is not a credible explanation of the origin of species such as mankind. The first is that organisms such as ourselves involve hierarchically structured and enormously organized complexity that cannot be credibly explained by appealing to random mutations. What we have in a human body is enormously organized and fine-tuned complexity so immense that it can be called an enormous engineering effect. In his interesting book Cosmological Koans, which has some nice flourishes of literary style, the physicist Anthony Aquirre tells us about just how complex biological life is. He states the following on page 338:

"On the physical level, biological creatures are so much more complex in a functional way than current artifacts of our technology that there's almost no comparison. The most elaborate and sophisticated human-designed machines, while quite impressive, are utter child's play compared with the workings of a cell: a cell contains on the order of 100 trillion atoms, and probably billions of quite complex molecules working with amazing precision. The most complex engineered machines -- modern jet aircraft, for example -- have several million parts. Thus, perhaps all the jetliners in the world (without people in them, of course) could compete in functional complexity with a lowly bacterium."

So if a lowly bacterium has a functional complexity comparable to a jetliner, what kind of functional complexity does a human body have? Functional complexity so great it can be called an enormously strong engineering effect. But chance is not an engineer; random mutations don't engineer things; and accidents don't produce engineering. So Frank's little explanation of how we got vastly organized organisms does not work. 

chance is not an engineer

(Image credit: Yuan et al. 2010, Structure of an apoptosome-procaspase-9 CARD complex)

Shown above is the apoptosome protein complex involved in programmed cell death. Note the references in the chart to propellers, which remind of us how much the complex resembles a product of engineering. Humans have more than 20,000 types of protein molecules, and the average protein molecule is a very special arrangement of more than 400 different amino acid parts. The arrangement of amino acids in each protein is as hard-to-achieve by chance as 400 accidentally typed characters making a paragraph of grammatical and functional prose. Extremely complex engineering arises in the form of protein complexes, in which different proteins (often useless by themselves) work together as team members to achieve some dramatic functional result. We see that in the visual above, where multiple instances of several different types of protein molecules come together to form an extremely complex structure consisting of thousands of well-arranged amino acid parts, and consisting of a total of tens of thousands of well-arranged atoms. A page describes the action of these individually useless proteins coming together to form a functional protein complex:

"The process of programmed cell death, also known as apoptosis, is highly regulated, and the decision to die is made through the coordinated action of many molecules. The apoptosome plays the role of gatekeeper in one of the major processes, termed the intrinsic pathway. It lies between the molecules that sense a problem and the molecules that disassemble the cell once the choice is made. Normally, the many subunits of the apoptosome are separated and inactive, circulating harmlessly through the cell. When trouble occurs, they assemble into a star-shaped complex, which activates protein-cutting caspases that get apoptosis started."

Another site that includes a 3D rotating animation of the structure shown above says this:

"The apoptosome is revealed as a wheel-like complex with seven spokes. On top of the wheel is a spiral-shaped disk that allows for docking and subsequent activation of proteases, which then target cellular components. When active, the apoptosome is revealed to be a dynamic machine with three to five protease molecules tethered to the wheel at any given time."

Below from page 137 of a PhD thesis is a list of biological systems described as if they were very impressive machinery:

Subcellular assembly

Sample of ‘molecular machine’ language

Source reference


probably the most sophisticated machine ever made”

Garrett (1999)


a molecular machine designed for controlled proteolysis”

Voges et al. (1999)


a molecular machine powering motility”

Keeley et al. (2003)


among the most complex macromolecular machines known”

Nilsen (2003)

Blood clotting system

a typical example of a molecular machine”

Spronk et al. (2003)

Photosynthetic system

the most elaborate nanoscale biological machine in nature”

Imahori (2004)

Bacterial flagellum

an exquisitely engineered chemi-osmotic nanomachine”

Pallen et al. (2005)

Myosin filament

a complicated machine of many moving parts”

Ohki et al. (2006

RNA degradasome

a supramolecular machine dedicated to RNA processing”

Marcaida et al. (2006)

RNA Polymerase

a multifunctional molecular machine”

Haag et al. (2007)

An article by scientists discusses molecular machines in the human body:

"A molecular machine (or ‘nanomachine’) is a mechanical device that is measured in nanometers (millionths of a millimeter, or units of 10-9 meter; on the scale of a single molecule) and converts chemical, electrical or optical energy to controlled mechanical work [1,2]. The human body can be viewed as a complex ensemble of nanomachines [3,4]. These tiny machines are responsible for the directed transport of macromolecules, membranes or chromosomes within the cytoplasm. They play a critical role in virtually every biological process (e.g., muscle contraction, cell division, intracellular transport, ATP production and genomic transcription)...Myosin, kinesin and their relatives are linear motors that convert the energy of ATP hydrolysis into mechanical work."

Humans are not machines, largely because humans have minds and lives and understanding that no machine has. But within our bodies are many types of extremely complex functional systems that can reasonably be described as molecular machinery or engineering. Such things are not credibly explained as being produced by the "random mutations" evoked by Frank. As some Harvard scientists stated, "A wide variety of protein structures exist in nature, however the evolutionary origins of this panoply of proteins remain unknown."

Two extremely important things to recognize are below:

  • The credibility of all claims of an accidental origin of biological organisms is inversely proportional to the degree of hierarchical organization and broken-by-small-changes functional complexity in such organisms (the more of the latter, the less credible the former).
  • The discovered amount of hierarchical organization and broken-by-small-changes functional complexity in living organisms has grown exponentially in the past century. 

Reminding me of examples discussed in my post "When Scientists Claim to See Things They Never Saw," Frank claims scientists saw something they didn't actually see. He says this:

"Using a variety of methods, biologists have mapped out the tree of relationships between living things across Earth’s long inhabited history, which goes back more than three billion years. They have been able to see when the different lineages of life split off from each other. For example, humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos share a common ancestor who lived about six million years ago."

No such splitting of ancestral lineages has actually been observed by scientists, who lack any power to observe any such things claimed to have occurred over thousands of generations millions of years ago. We do not know that "humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos share a common ancestor who lived about six million years ago." That claim is merely a guess. 

In 2017 had a long article entitled “We have still not found the missing link between us and apes.” The article discusses the history of postulating a common ancestor linking current ape-like animals and humans. What we get is a story of a great deal of disagreement and changes in the prevailing narrative. Referring to a "last common ancestor" or LCA, we are told, “Surprisingly, the last 15 years has actually seen popular opinion begin to swing away from the idea of a chimp-like LCA, and towards a model closer to that argued by people like Strauss in the 1940s.” Of one analysis, we are told, “One of the implications of their interpretations was that all sorts of anatomical features shared by gibbons, orangutans, chimps and gorillas must have evolved independently in each of these apes.” That claim should raise suspicions, as such coincidental independent evolution is highly improbable.

The article says the following about a Last Common Ancestor:

" 'There has been a community shift, where people have begun to question what was an emerging consensus for a chimp-like LCA,' says Young. But even that is not the end of the story. There are still 'chimp-like LCA' advocates out there, and they are fighting back...Of course, only if and when fossils of the LCA itself come to light will the debate finally draw to a close..It is possible, they say, that the LCA might actually have lived 13 – not seven – million years ago....There are also a few researchers who take a completely different view. For instance, Schwartz is adamant that it is orangutans, not chimpanzees, that are our sister species."

A scientific article tells us, “Few fields of research are subject to so many competing hypotheses, as illustrated by the variable number of ancestral species assigned to the human lineage by different authors, ranging from four to a maximum of 25.” Such gaps and disagreements should not at all inspire our confidence that scientists have a firm gasp on this matter. The scientists are apparently fighting among themselves, disagreeing about the most basic things, and missing many of the fossils they need. 

All claims that humans naturally evolved from any kind of ape-like or chimp-like or orangutan-like ancestor are lacking in credibility. Since DNA does not specify the anatomy of an organism, there are no possible random mutations in DNA that can explain very complex changes in anatomy. Since brains do not credibly explain the human mind, for reasons discussed on the posts of this blog, the origin of the human mind is utterly beyond the power of evolutionary biologists to explain.  In his essay "The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man," it was forcibly pointed out by the co-creator of the theory of natural selection (Alfred Russel Wallace) that natural selection cannot explain some of these higher capabilities of the human mind. In fact, in his his 1910 book The World of Life: a Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose,  Wallace argued that natural selection and random variations were very far indeed from being sufficient to account for the wonders of biology.

Frank's vague reference to "a common ancestor" between chimps and humans (without mentioning a particular species) follows the convention of most evolutionary biologists. They speak vaguely of such a common ancestor, without mentioning some specific species identified in fossils. No such ancestor has been found in the fossil record. The vague claims here remind us of what scientists say in regard to dark matter and dark energy. Astrophysicists such as Frank are always boasting that they understand what makes up most of the universe, claiming that most of the universe consists of dark energy and dark matter. But what is this dark matter and dark energy? No specific dark energy particle has ever been found. No specific dark matter particle has ever been found. Dark matter and dark energy have never been directly observed. The missing chimp/human ancestor fossils are like the missing dark matter particles and the missing dark energy particles, which are like the missing memory traces never found in the human brain by microscopic study. 

Just as scientists have scanned the heavens with the most powerful telescopes without ever seeing dark energy or dark matter, scientists have scanned the human brain with the most powerful microscopes, without ever finding any human memory. It's not just that they failed to read any learned information from microscopically examining human brain tissue. It's something much worse: that they never found in neural tissue anything that looked anything like stored information learned in school. Stored information has a particular hallmark: the hallmark of token repetitions. There is no token repetition to be found anywhere in the brain, except for the nucleotide base pair tokens in DNA which merely stand for particular types of amino acids. 

So our neuroscientists vaguely claiming they know memories are stored in the brain (without providing any plausible specifics of how that could work) are like our astrophysicists vaguely claiming they know that most of the universe is dark matter and dark energy (without providing any specifics about observed dark matter particles and dark energy particles). In both cases, people who don't understand things are pretending they have knowledge that they don't have, and are confusing speculations with knowledge. 

Frank gives us another case of scientists pretending to know things they don't actually know when he gives us the rather laughable boasting statement below, boasting that scientists know something about a Last Universal Common Ancestor of life:

"We do not know much about this creature. We do not have direct fossils of its existence. But we can infer its existence from the tree of life. There must have been a last universal common ancestor that gave root to all life on Earth. The recognition of LUCA is a triumph of modern biological sciences."

Scientists have something to boast about when they actually observe things, rather than merely making inferences based on ever-changing speculations about ancestry trees of life, unsupported by a credible theory of how such trees could have arisen.  And there was no "recognition of LUCA," because you can't recognize something that you've never seen. And why is Frank saying that the origin of life may never be found? It's because all attempts to support the groundless notion of abiogenesis (a natural origin of life from non-life) have failed miserably. Such a failure (and a lack of any credible natural explanation for the enormously abundant engineering effects in organisms) means we can have no confidence in the common ancestry claims Frank has made.   

Frank tells us that we may never know what caused the Big Bang (the universe's origin), and in this regard he has a good excuse for such a failure. The excuse is that according to the Big Bang theory itself, the universe should have been so dense during its first 100,000 years that all observations of such a time should forever be physically impossible, regardless of how powerful future telescopes are. But in regard to memory, neuroscientists have no excuse for their failure to read memories from brain tissue despite their claims that memory is brain-based. Scientists were able to discover information in microscopic DNA way back around 1950. With their current microscopic  technology, scientists should be able to discover irrefutable proof of brain storage of memories, if it existed. Their failure to find any such thing is one of many strong reasons for rejecting their claims that memories are stored in brains. 

We read here that "Cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) single particle analysis (SPA) is a technique for reconstructing the three-dimensional structure of a biomacromolecule using projected images acquired with an electron microscope and was the subject of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2017." A 2020 article is entitled "Cryo–electron microscopy breaks the atomic resolution barrier at last." We read this:

" Now, for the first time, scientists have sharpened cryo-EM's resolution to the atomic level, allowing them to pinpoint the positions of individual atoms in a variety of proteins at a resolution that rivals x-ray crystallography's. 'This is just amazing,' says Melanie Ohi, a cryo-EM expert at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 'To see this level of detail, it's just beautiful.' Because the heightened resolution reveals exactly how complex cellular machines carry out their jobs, improvements in cryo-EM should yield countless new insights into biology."

This greater microscopic resolution is giving us all the more dramatic evidence for accidentally unachievable molecular machinery in human bodies, while at the same making ever-more-clear the failure of neuroscientists to detect any such thing as learned conceptual information stored in brains, where no trace can be found of any facts learned in school, and no trace can be found of any words people memorized or any sights people ever saw. The article shows us a stunning visualization of an enormously organized apoferritin protein complex looking even more complex than the one in the visual above. 

Monday, January 23, 2023

Neuroscientists Keep Wrongly Assuming the Source of Something Must Be Near Its Observed Manifestations

A post of mine written back in 2014 shows a very strong consistency with my current beliefs after making a very thorough study of the brain. The post was entitled "The Receptacle Hypothesis: Could Your Mind Have Come From an External Source?" Back in 2014 I wrote this:

"Imagine a very young girl who lives in a house with a flower garden in its backyard. The small girl hasn't yet gone to school, and knows nothing about the details of flowers or bees. The only times she ever observes bees is when she sees them hovering near the flowers in her garden. For this young girl, there is a 100% correlation between the observation of bees and the observation of flowers.

The girl then comes up with what seems to her to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for where bees come from. She concludes that bees are produced by flowers-- that flowers make bees just like apple trees make apples. This theory fits with all of her observations and knowledge. The actual truth is quite different – the bees come from a distant source (a bee hive) and they are attracted to flowers. But since the girl knows nothing of bee hives, she doesn't think of this explanation. The girl misidentifies something local (the flower) as the cause of something (the bee) which actually comes from something distant (the bee hive).

It could be that the average person who concludes that consciousness is created by brain activity is just like this little girl. It could be that each human consciousness arises from some distant external source, and then is somehow attracted to a newborn human. It could be that a human body acts as a kind of receptacle for human consciousness, but does not actually produce that consciousness. This external source of consciousness could be rather like the beehive, a person's consciousness could be rather like the bee, and a human brain could be rather like the flower – something to which consciousness that arose from elsewhere is attracted towards, and hovers around. Somewhat like the little girl mentioned above, we may be misidentifying something local (our brains) as the cause of something (our consciousness) which may actually have originated from something distant (some unknown external source of consciousness outside of our bodies).

Let us consider another case that will illustrate this point that correlation does not prove causation (and which will give another example where something local is misidentified as the source of something with a distant source). Imagine a scientist in the year 1700 trying to explain comets. The scientist would consider all the observations he knew about comets – that comets seem to appear rather suddenly out in space not far from  planets such as Mars and Jupiter. The scientist might then conclude: planets produce comets. He might guess that comets are occasionally burped out from planets rather like a man spits out food. Given his limited knowledge, he would have almost no other way of explaining comets.

Again, this would be a case where a local source is misidentified as the cause of something which comes from a distant source. Now we know that comets come from a ring-like cloud of comets called the Oort Cloud located far beyond the orbit of the most distant planet. The comets come from the distant source we cannot see because they are attracted (by gravity) to things we can see (the sun and the planets). Similarly, it may be that a human consciousness arises from some distant source we know nothing of, and that an individual consciousness is somehow attracted towards some local thing that we can see, a newborn human body.

It might be that the human brain is not what is producing our consciousness. It might be that the human body is just acting as a kind of receptacle for consciousness that originated from some distant source."

Below is the visual I gave in my 2014 post to illustrate the idea:

receptacle theory of mind

When I wrote these words back in 2014 1 had not yet made much of a study of the brain. Now, after having spent thousands of hours researching the brain, this idea I had suggested in 2014 seems like no mere possibility but more like a necessity. To explain why, I can return to the analogy of the little girl, the flowers and the bees. 

Suppose the little girl had studied flowers and their parts. It might have dawned on her that there is nothing in flowers capable of explaining the origin of bees. You can imagine some "bee construction" machinery, and flowers have none of the characteristics of such machinery. Upon considering how there is nothing in a flower that can explain the origin of a bee, the girl would have a good reason for rejecting the "flowers make bees" hypothesis. 

A similar state of affairs occurs with the brain and the mind. The brain lacks the features we might expect it to have if it were the source of our minds. We cannot identify any physical feature that would tend to produce a conscious being with a sense of self. The whole idea of mind arising from matter seems no more logical than blood dripping from a stone. But in the case of memory, we can identify a set of physical features that we would expect a brain to have if it were something that could explain our memory. From our work with computers, we know the type of features that enable the permanent storage and instant retrieval of information. They are features such as this:
  • Something such as a read-write head allowing information to be written to some spot where it is permanently stored, and read from such a spot.
  • Some stable physical substrate allowing information transmitted to the system to be permanently stored without the information quickly decaying.
  • Features such as addressing and indexing allowing the instant retrieval of specific items of stored data.
  • Some system allowing the instant storage of new information. 
  • Some system for allowing information to be translated into symbolic tokens that are used for information storage (tokens such as letters or binary bits).
  • Transmission paths allowing a very fast and error-free transmission of information between different parts of the system.  
No such things exist in the brain. Brains have no indexing and no addressing. Neurons don't come with neuron numbers or neuron addresses. There is no known physical substrate allowing sensory information to be permanently stored in the brain without the information quickly decaying. The synapses claimed to be the site of memory storage are "shifting sands" type of things, made of proteins with average lifetimes of less than two weeks; and such synapses are attached to dendritic spines with an average lifetime of a few months or less

DNA is a stable substrate for information storage, but there is zero evidence that things learned by the senses are stored in DNA. No one has ever found information learned in school stored in DNA, or in any other part of the brain. The synapses in the brain are almost all chemical synapses, which do not transmit information reliably (a signal will pass across a synapse with a reliability of less than 50%).  Neurons and synapses are extremely noisy structures, and chemical synapses have a very strong cumulative slowing effect on signal transmission.  The brain has no known mechanism for instantly storing memories, and the "synapse strengthening" claimed to be behind memory storage would require protein synthesis taking minutes or hours, being way to slow to account for new memories that humans can instantly acquire. Brains are too slow, too noisy and too unstable to be the source of human memory phenomena and human thinking, which is often blazing fast and 100% reliable (as when Hamlet actors recall more than a thousand lines of dialog with complete accuracy), and which routinely involves the preservation of memories for several decades. 

Besides the two examples in my 2014 post, I can think of two more examples that remind me of the fallacy of assuming that the source of something must be near its observed manifestations:

(1) If someone had no idea what caused TV shows to be displayed on a TV screen, he might assume that somehow the shows arise from the machine itself: that a TV is some kind of "TV show generator." This assumption would be very false. TV shows arise from complex causal affairs (called "TV show filming") that typically takes place many miles from the TV that displays the show.
(2) On a planet that was perpetually covered with clouds (which we may call planet Evercloudy), scientists who had never seen a sun might wonder how there arises the light that lights their planet and the heat that heats their planet. They might wrongly assume that such heat and light comes from the planet itself -- that maybe rocks or dirt emit heat and light. This answer would be dead wrong. The heat and light that blessed their planet would actually come from a very distant source that was unknown to them: the star which their planet revolved around. 

The hypothesis that minds must come from some source outside of a body can be supported not just by looking inward, asking ourselves whether brains have the characteristics that could explain minds. Such a hypothesis can also be supported by looking outward, and asking: do we have any reason to suspect there is some great mysterious causal reality outside of our bodies and our planet? Looking outward, we find ourselves in a universe that suddenly began in a fine-tuned manner, a universe that against the most gigantic odds has laws and fundamental constants allowing creatures such as ourselves to exist.  Nature had to hit many a distant bulls-eye to end up with a universe meeting the many requirements for organisms such as ourselves. Seeing such fine-tuning, and also what seems like the most enormous teleology in the origination of fantastically organized physical bodies such as the human body, and being unable to even explain the progression from a speck-sized zygote to a full human body without resorting to the lie that DNA is a body blueprint, we have every reason to suspect some unfathomably powerful mysterious causal reality beyond our understanding, which may (directly or indirectly) help explain how we got our minds that our brains cannot explain.

The little girl's hypothesis about flowers yielding bees would be hard to disprove. But you could discredit it by carefully filming hundreds of flowers, and observing that the bees always appeared from a point outside of the flower, rather than from within it. As for brains making minds, one way to discredit it is by very carefully studying what goes on in minds during near-death experiences in which the brain tends to shut down because of the heart stopping. At the link here we have a survey of survivors of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake which killed some 240,000 people.  81 survivors were interviewed, by talking to patients at a convalescent hospital, patients who had been admitted because of injuries suffered in the earthquake. 40 out of 81 reported "full blown" near-death experiences (7 or greater on the Greyson scale).  51% (41 out of 81) reported "thinking unusually fast," 28% (23 out of 81) reported "sudden understanding," 43% (35 out of 81) reported "an out-of-body experience," and 65% (53 out of 81) reported "unusually vivid thoughts."  The results are the opposite of what we would expect from the "brains make minds" idea.  If your brain makes your mind, you would never have an experience of floating out of your body, and you would never report your thoughts speeding up and your understanding increasing when your brain shut down. 

Monday, January 16, 2023

The Two Huge Mistakes Involved in Typical Talk of a "Hard Problem of Consciousness"

There are many discussions that talk about a “hard problem of consciousness,” and such discussions tend to involve two huge mistakes. The first mistake is in trying to shrink the gigantic problem of explaining human mentality into a relatively tiny problem of explaining consciousness. 

The visual below may help show what I mean. We see in the grid various diverse aspects of human mentality. There is the problem of  how humans got all these diverse mental aspects and capabilities. As shown in the grid, consciousness is merely a tiny part of human mentality. The grid below is actually a simplification, for it does not even mention many unusual aspects of human mentality that are studied by parapsychologists. 

facets of human mentality

The problem of human mentality is the problem of credibly explaining the thirty or forty most interesting types of human mental experiences, human mental characteristics and human mental capabilities. These include things such as these:

  • imagination
  • self-hood
  • abstract idea creation
  • appreciation
  • memory formation
  • moral thinking and moral behavior
  • instantaneous memory recall
  • instantaneous creation of permanent new memories
  • memory persistence for as long as 50 years or more
  • emotions
  • speaking in a language
  • understanding spoken language
  • creativity
  • insight
  • beliefs
  • pleasure
  • pain
  • reading ability
  • writing ability
  • ordinary awareness of surroundings
  • visual perception
  • recognition
  • auditory perception
  • attention
  • fascination and interest
  • the correct recall of large bodies of sequential information (such as when someone playing Hamlet recalls all his lines correctly)
  • eyes-closed visualization
  • extrasensory perception (ESP)
  • dreaming
  • volition
  • out-of-body experiences
  • apparition sightings 

Reductionist theorists love it when people do not raise the big problem of explaining human mentality but instead raise a much tinier problem of the problem of consciousness. Then such theorists can attempt to offer some little neural explanation and then say, “You see, the brain can explain consciousness.” Whenever such theorists attempt to do that, we should always point out that the problem of explaining human mentality is very many times larger and harder than a mere problem of consciousness.

When such theorists write their articles, they love to reference philosopher David Chalmers, a thinker who coined the phrase "hard problem of consciousness." One of the earliest uses by Chalmers of such a phrase was in a December 1995 Scientific American article by Chalmers. A careful look at the article reveals a great deal going wrong. 

In the article (entitled "The Puzzle of Conscious Experience")  Chalmers makes a very misguided and poorly conceived distinction between what he calls "easy problems of consciousness" and what he calls a "hard problem of consciousness."  Chalmers wrote this:

"The easy problems of consciousness include the following: How can a human subject discriminate sensory stimuli and react to them appropriately? How does the brain integrate information from many different sources and use this information to control behavior? How is it that subjects can verbalize their internal states? Although all these questions are associated with consciousness, they all concern the objective mechanisms of the cognitive system. Consequently, we have every reason to expect that continued work in cognitive psychology and neuroscience will answer them."

This was triumphalist hogwash. We do not know that brains "integrate information from many different sources and use this information to control behavior."  We simply know that humans integrate integrate information from many different sources.  There is no understanding of how a brain could control behavior, no credible theories of how a brain could store learned information, and zero reason to expect that "continued work in cognitive psychology and neuroscience" would lead to some understanding of how neurons could control behavior. The idea of identifying a "hard problem of consciousness" and calling the other problems of explaining minds "easy problems" was  very misguided, a blundering bifurcation.  Nature gave us no warrant for dividing up philosophy of mind problems into one "hard" problem and a bunch of other "easy" problems.  

There are many dozens or hundreds of very hard problems involving the explanation of human minds and human mental experiences. The attempt by Chalmers to insinuate that there was only one hard problem of explaining the mind (what he called a "hard problem of consciousness") was folly.  This is the kind of error that would tend to come from either (1) someone was not a very serious critical scholar of neuroscience and its very many shortfalls, unfounded claims and poor research practices, or (2) someone who was not a very serious and thorough scholar of psychical research and the more hard-to-explain mental phenomena such as paranormal phenomena. 

Just as ill-conceived was how Chalmers defined what he called "the hard problem of consciousness." In his 1995 Scientific American article he defined his so-called "hard problem of consciousness" like this: "The hard problem, in contrast, is the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience."  Because we do not know that any physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience, and have very strong reasons for doubting that any such processes exist, it was an error to be posing such a question framed in such a way. It is a big mistake to ask questions that assume some claim that has not been proven, and that there are very good reasons for doubting. 

By 1995 there already existed the strongest reasons for doubting that "physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience." One major reason was the complete failure of anyone to explain how subjective experience (something mental) could ever be caused by something merely physical. Another major reason very well documented by 1995 was the existence of human mental experience in persons whose brain was shut down after cardiac arrest.  During near-death experiences people can have extremely vivid subjective experience while their brains have temporarily shut down because their hearts have stopped.  Many cases of that happening had been well documented by 1995. 

In his 1995 article Chalmers makes the poor reasoning below:

"I am not denying that consciousness arises from the brain. We know, for example, that the subjective experience of vision is closely linked to processes in the visual cortex. It is the link itself that perplexes, however. Remarkably, subjective experience seems to emerge from a physical process. But we have no idea how or why this is." 

Some kind of relation between the visual cortex and the "subjective experience of vision" does nothing to establish that "consciousness arises from the brain." Similarly, some kind of link between your eyeglasses and "the subjective experience of vision" does nothing to show that your eyeglasses produce consciousness. Chalmers confesses here that we "have no idea how or why this is" that subjective experience could arise from a brain, but he failed to realize the very obvious implication of such thing: that such a failure should cause us to doubt the dogma that subjective experience does arise from the brain.

What we are left with is a quotation above that sounds as silly as someone saying, "I do not doubt that extraterrestrials are manipulating the US stock market, but I don't know how or why they are doing it."  If you don't know how or why X, then you should typically doubt that you actually know X. 

Later in the same article Chalmers tells us this:

"Thus, a complete theory will have two components: physical laws, telling us about the behavior of physical systems from the infinitesimal to the cosmological, and what we might call psychophysical laws, telling us how some of those systems are associated with conscious experience. These two components will constitute a true theory of everything."

People who say things like this make me wince. Physicists sound very silly every time they talk about a "theory of everything," and philosophers sound every bit as silly when they use that term. The two things mentioned leave out almost everything to be explained in biology, astronomy, cosmology, history, sociology, chemistry and a dozen other major topics, as well as 98% of what needs to be explained to explain the human mind and its experiences (a topic of oceanic depth). Serious and very thorough scholars of the human mind and human mental experiences don't tend to talk in such a way, because they tend to be humbled by the very large variety of utterly baffling phenomena they encounter in their studies. 

At the link here (obtained from a Google Scholar search of Chalmers name) you can read a 1995 book by Chalmers entitled "The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Theory of Conscious Experience." In the second paragraph of this 391-page book, we have an unwise "we're almost finished" kind of claim that "we do not have many detailed theories of cognition, to be sure, but there are few problems of principle; the details cannot be too far off."  This is enormously false. Neuroscientists have not got much of anywhere in explaining any of the main mysteries of the mind, which are very many.  

Reading this book, I fail to get a strong impression of Chalmers being a very serious and thorough scholar of either the human brain or neuroscience (although he uses the term "brain" nearly 200 times). The fact that in the book he only refers to synapses two times (not saying anything  substantive about them) and proteins one time may indicate that when he wrote the book he had failed to do his homework very vigorously, by thoroughly studying the human brain and neuroscientist claims about it and its components, and the physical limitations and shortfalls of the human brain. In the book Chalmers also seems to show no familiarity with psychical research (research into paranormal phenomena), something that should be studied very carefully before anyone should be writing about questions of mind or consciousness. We get no mention of dendrites, no substantive mention of protein molecules, no mention of LTP or long-term potentiation, no mention of claims of engrams. We have on page 37 a false reference to "the fact that all living things are made of DNA." Physically, we are made of cells, and DNA is only one of countless components in cells. 

We get in the book statements sounding like Chalmers has bought "hook, line and sinker" some of the most groundless boasts and ill-founded dogmas of modern scientists. He repeatedly refers to a groundless tenet that there is some "causal closure of the physical," that everything physical (such as human actions) can be explained by something else physical. Such a claim is a groundless dogma.  On page 110 he seems to endorse such a dogma, making the incorrect claim that science tells us that "for every physical event, there is a physical sufficient cause." The claim that every physical event must have a physical cause is no more logically compelling than the claim that every Danish pastry must come from a Danish cook. What Chalmers advocates seems to be a "wolf in sheep's clothing" affair that he calls a dualism, but later reveals to be a "naturalistic dualism." It seems like basically something not much different from materialism.  He claims that not everything is physical, but the way he presents such an idea, it seems there is no practical difference between what he is imagining and materialism, but merely a descriptive difference.  

The reasoning that he gives for his position is some unconvincing reasoning based largely on some armchair argument involving "philosophical zombies." In the book Chalmers uses the word "zombies" 43 times. A "philosophical zombie" is some hypothetical entity having no conscious experience but acting just like a human. Arguments based on the possibility of "philosophical zombies" are misguided and fallacious. There is no reason to think that beings could act just like humans if such beings were not conscious. 

To get some insight into the human mind, you should study in the greatest detail all of the varieties of human experiences, all of the strange things humans have reported seeing and experiencing, and all of the mental capabilities humans have seemed to have. A scholar of the mind should study and write about thousands or many hundreds of specific human beings and the specific capabilities and experiences they have had. Very little will be accomplished by avoiding specifics, and engaging in endless dry abstract philosophical talk about "consciousness," just as very little will be accomplished by a philosopher engaging in endless dry abstract philosophical talk about "existence." In Chalmers' book "The Conscious Mind" he uses the term "consciousness" 1,362 times, but seems to make very few  references to specific humans and their specific experiences.   

There are three main ways to start making some progress in the philosophy of mind: 
(1) The first way is to do a thorough study of the human brain and its components, and the physical shortfalls of the human brain and its components, as well as a thorough critical study of neuroscience and the shortfalls and defective speech customs of current neuoscientists, including a study of their poor experimental practices and their frequent use of unproven dogmatic claims. Such a study should include an exhaustive inquiry into enigmatic case histories of neuroscience, and also a deep sociological study correctly categorizing neuroscientists as members of a modern belief community resembling an organized religion. Always be asking, "What kind of physical characteristics would a brain need to have if it were the source of our minds and the storage place of memories, and does the brain actually have such characteristics?" The person doing such a study will be likely to strongly suspect that "brains make minds" explanatory boasts of neuroscientists are mainly unfounded dogmas or belief community speech customs, rather than claims well-established by observations. 
(2) The second way to start making some progress in the philosophy of mind is to make a very thorough study of the two hundred years of well-documented evidence for psychical phenomena and paranormal phenomena, which are of utmost relevance to topics in the philosophy of mind. This requires a very deep study of the specific experiences which particular humans have had. 
(3) The third way to start making some progress in the philosophy of mind is to very deeply study biology, the vast order and organization of biological systems,  the very many examples of cosmic fine-tuning that help make possible biological systems, and particularly the unsolved problem of the origin of the individual human body, something not explained by DNA, which does not specify anatomy, and does not specify the structure of any cell. A person properly studying such a topic will eventually learn that biologists currently have no credible explanation for the progression from a speck-sized zygote to the vast organization of a human body. Such a failure is of the utmost relevance to the question of how there arises a human mind. If we need a top-down explanation for the origin of human bodies (as we do), that suggests we also need a top-down explanation for the origin of human minds, an explanation different from the bottom-up explanation of mere neural activity. 

In his 1995 book Chalmers seemed to show few signs of having properly studied any of these topics to any great extent. He seemed to sound in that book rather like someone who hadn't properly studied brains and their components and their very many physical shortfalls and limitations, and hadn't properly studied the rich diversity of human mental experiences. His reasoning seems to be mainly armchair reasoning rather than the type of observation-based reasoning that should be the core of someone arguing about minds. This, alas, is what philosophers tend to do. Ignoring hundreds of extremely relevant observations that are of the utmost relevance to philosophical topics, observations requiring deep scholarly study, philosophers spend endless time discussing the armchair arguments of other philosophers. 

Searching for Chalmers' work on Google Scholar, I find a draft of a book by him called Constructing the World, which talks endlessly about the mind, but fails to even use the words "neuron" or "neural" or "brain." This reinforces my impression of someone without much interest in diving very deeply into the low-level details of brains and neuroscience. 

Chalmers wrote very much on mind-related problems during the 25  years following his 1995 Scientific American article. But in a 2018 paper, he sounded rather like he hadn't learned much about the shortfalls of neuroscience, the extreme overconfidence of neuroscientists, the physical limitations and shortfalls of the human brain, and the vast complexities of the human mind and human mental experience, a topic of oceanic depth. In a 2018 paper by Chalmers entitled "The Meta-Problem of Consciousness," we read this very erroneous statement: 

"The hard problem of explaining phenomenal consciousness is one of the most puzzling in all of science and philosophy, and at the present time there are no solutions that command any sort of consensus. The hard problem contrasts with the easy problems of explaining various objective behavioural or cognitive functions such as learning, memory, perceptual integration, and verbal report. The easy problems are easy because we have a standard paradigm for explaining them." 

What an erroneous statement that is at the end. Problems don't become easy because you have some simplistic "this explains everything" paradigm such as "it's all caused by neurons." When you have bad explanations for things, explanations that do not hold water, you have not made very hard problems "easy." And neuroscientists have nothing but bad explanations for "learning, memory, perceptual integration, and verbal report," explanations that do not hold water, for reasons discussed at great length in the posts on this blog. Part of the problem is that the brain bears no resemblance to a device for instantly storing memories, retaining learned information for decades, and allowing the instant retrieval of such information. From our work with computers, humans know the kind of characteristics that such a device would have; and the human brain has no such characteristics (as discussed here and here). 

A position stated so often by Chalmers is one that makes no sense. It is the position that we can believe explaining things like learning and memory are "easy problems," because the neuroscientists claim some progress in understanding them, but that we must regard explaining consciousness as a "hard problem" because no progress has been made in solving it. But the neuroscientists have made just as many boasts about explaining consciousness as they have about explaining memory. So if our neuroscientists are not credible in their claims about having an explanation for consciousness, why should we think that they are credible about having an explanation for learning and memory? A very careful and impartial study of the claims of neuroscientists about having a neural explanation for learning and memory will reveal that they are as groundless as their claims of having an explanation for consciousness. 

On page 5 of the document here, Chalmers states this:

"It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis,
but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. 
Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life
at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet 
it does." 

How very erroneous, to believe in something "objectively unreasonable," without having any "how" or "why," apparently because "it is widely agreed." Much better to get some idea of the mind that does not require you to believe in things "objectively unreasonable," no matter how much such an idea may defy the prevailing speech customs in academia. 

I cannot claim to have well-studied Chalmers writings other than the few documents I have referred to, so who knows, maybe elsewhere there is some much better insight to be found in his writings, or much better scholarship on some of the topics I have mentioned. Indeed, a 2021 paper by him suggests he may be gaining some better insight. Some of the quotes I have made above may refer to one or more positions that Chalmers no longer holds.  

To summarize, there are two gigantic mistakes involved in typical talk of a "hard problem of consciousness" when such talk cites Chalmers:
(1) Is it a huge mistake to be claiming that a problem of explaining consciousness is a "hard problem," and that the other problems of explaining human minds are "easy problems." Most of the other problems involved in explaining human minds are just as hard as the problem of explaining consciousness. If you think otherwise, you have probably failed to properly study the many physical shortfalls of the brain, and you have probably accepted without adequate critical scrutiny some unfounded explanatory boasts of neuroscientists that are not supported by robust evidence.  
(2) Is it a huge mistake to be posing a "hard problem of consciousness" as a problem of "how does the brain give rise to consciousness?" We do not know that the brain does give rise to consciousness, and have very strong reasons (discussed in the posts of this site) for disbelieving that the main aspects of human mentality (such as consciousness and memory) can be explained as being caused by brains. 

Reading the countless repetitions in writings by others of Chalmers' very faulty claim of a single "hard problem of consciousness," I sometimes ask myself: why do people keep repeating reasoning so erroneous? I think the answer is that in such a claim we have a "the job is almost finished" legend, and people just love "the job is almost finished" legends, just as they love "light at the end of the tunnel" stories. We find a comparable "the job is almost finished" legend in the groundless boast that Darwinism has explained all biological origins except the origin of life. A more careful study may cause you to realize that such a boast is triumphalist baloney, and that neither the origin of any biologically innovative species nor the origin of any human body is plausibly explained by Darwinist theory (for reasons discussed here, here, here,  here and here).