Monday, 24 April 2017

Where Does Thinking Take Place?
If you would be so kind, please help me find my mind.    - Mose Allison
I often introduce a discussion about the mind-body problem by asking "Where does your thinking take place?"  Nearly everyone answers, "In my brain."  Such is the power of contemporary neuroscience with its razzle-dazzle imaging technology and brain-probing techniques.  When I reply, "Wait a minute.  What about you?  I thought it was you who does the thinking.  When I ask what you think about this or that, it's you, the person, that answers, isn't it?  Now you tell me it's your brain that does your thinking.  How did you, the person who answered my question, drop out of the story?"  People often look startled when I ask this question, because they have not thought carefully about the relationship between self, mind, and brain.  They don't realize the dramatic self-erasure that occurs when they embrace a materialistic theory of mind.  Neuroscientists have popularized the notion that mental activities like thinking, imagining, feeling, etc., are just brain states, and science is God, so people assume it must be true.*  However, this doctrine, known as physicalism or the physicalist theory of mind, is not science - there is no experiment that proves it.  It is bad philosophy.  Here is some good philosophy to help clean up the mess.
When you are thinking about something, there are at least three factors involved.  There is the agent of the thinking, that's you, a person.  Second, there is the process of thinking, moving from one idea to another, as when balancing your checkbook or writing a letter.  Third, there is what your thinking is about; thinking is always about something.  This 'aboutness'  is often called intentionality.
These three factors cannot be separated.  They are necessary components of every act of thinking.  Of course, a normally functioning brain is also necessary, along with the rest of the body it is attached to.  However, to say that thinking takes place in the brain is to attempt to cram all three of the first group of necessary components into that 3-pounds of squishy meat inside your skull.  So according to the standard view, you, your thinking, and what you are thinking about are all inside your brain.  But, of course, you have no awareness of being surrounded by or sitting on top of your brain tissue.  You are not actually aware of your brain at all.  You are aware of your body and the contents of the room you are in, and you are aware of your thoughts, but your brain is not available for inspection.  You probably don't know anything about it.  You may be living in a Matrix, but you are definitely not living inside your brain.
Are the absurdities of this story starting to become rather obvious?  First is the ridiculous notion that you, the person doing the thinking is inside your own brain at the same time as you are in the external, physical world reading an essay with eyes that are precisely not in your brain.  Philosopher Patricia Churchland goes further; she says, no, you are not in your brain; you are your brain.  A person is just a brain in a skull (the rest of the nervous system is apparently just for carrying the head around).  This kind of talk borders on lunacy.
Here's another way to see that thinking can't happen in the brain.  Let's talk about intentionality, the 'aboutness' of thought.  Thinking is always about something.  Let's assume a thinker, Sue, is thinking about the Pythagorean Theorem and let's suppose she is using a drawing like the one below to help her visualize the relationships.

                                                            a2 + b2  = c2
You might remember your geometry teacher pointing out that drawings like this are not real triangles and squares; they are representations.  Lines in drawings have width and thickness; real triangles do not,   Drawings are also never perfect, whereas real triangles have perfectly straight lines and perfectly accurate angles.  They possess only two dimensions, and no physical properties like mass or volume.  Drawings are just visual representations of abstract geometric ideas.  They are not found in nature, and they cannot be made physical by any human art.  So when Sue is working on the Pythagorean theorem, is the object of her thinking - the real triangle - in her brain?  Of course not.  The brain is a physical object, so anything in it would also have to be physical.  Plenty of neurons, blood, and water in there, but no triangles.  Lots of electrical signals whizzing around, but no thinking.

This description applies to any kind of thinking, not just mathematics.  All thinking involves concepts, and concepts are non-physical.  Take justice, for example.  Can the meaning of 'justice' be found in the brain?  Certainly not.  Only neurons in there, no justice, no meanings. 
Here is my argument in brief: 1) 'mind' is not a thing; it's a collective noun we use for convenience to talk about a number of human activities that seem different from the operations of our organs and limbs; call them 'mental activities.'  Thinking is one of those.  2) that any thinking operation requires at least four necessary elements:  a person, an object, a process, and a brain; and 3) that none of the first three can be found in the brain.  They are correlated with brain states but are not themselves brain states.  It follows that the popular "thinking happens in the brain" theory is wrong.  A functioning brain is the necessary physical component of any act of thinking, but it is not sufficient to explain the other components which are not physical.  Thinking does not take place in the brain.
"Where does it take place then?  If not in the brain, then where?"  Nowhere, I'm afraid.  The trouble lies with the question.  "Where do mental activities happen?" is based on the hidden assumption that everything has to be somewhere, that is, everything we consider to be real has to have simple location in space.  That's the fundamental assumption of all materialist philosophy and science.** But why should we believe it?  Where's the proof?  There is no proof, because there is no possible way of proving anything about everything.  The first principle of physical science is not itself a scientific hypothesis.  It's an orienting metaphysical assumption that has to be taken on blind faith if physical science is ever to get off the ground.  Such assumptions, however, can be falsified, and we have seen good reasons to think this one - that all reality is material - is false.
   * Novice philosophers might forget themselves in the embrace, but neuroscientists themselves do not.  They know that in order to discover the correlations between a mind and whatever is showing up on their MRI screens, they have to ask the experimental subject, the person who is having the experience, what it is they are experiencing. 
      ** For more on this, see my posts "Trouble With the Brain, Parts 1 and 2," October 2015.


Tuesday, 18 April 2017

How Many Billionaires Should There Be?
Recently at a lunch gathering of the White Rock Philosophers, the topic of economic justice came up, which gave me an opportunity to ask one of my favorite questions:  how many billionaires should exist in the world?  One suggested answer was: as many as there are people who put in the work to earn their billions.  Here is the best argument I know of to support this view:
1.  In a capitalist system, each individual is free to compete in the marketplace for as much wealth as they can accumulate in accordance with law.
2.  The individual is entitled to spend, save, or invest the money they earn any way they see fit.  
3.  Some individuals become billionaires or even multibillionaires in this system (after taxes).
4.  They are entitled to 100% control of their wealth because they deserve it and because the law allows it.     
5.  There is no theoretical or legal limit to the number of individuals who might become billionaires.
6.  Therefore, the number of billionaires that should exist is just the number that does exist at any given time.
My argument is for the contrary proposition:  there should be zero billionaires in the world. Given the well-known facts about inequality in capitalist societies these days, I am tempted to suggest that this view is self-evident.  To be blunt, to become a billionaire is to commit a moral crime against humanity.  However, a philosopher is required to supply supporting argument for such views.  Here is mine:
1.  Inequality of wealth is inevitable in any economic system.  It does not follow that any degree of inequality is morally justifiable.
2.  People are roughly equal with respect to their basic needs:  survival and safety, health, belonging, self-esteem, etc. (see A. Maslow's hierarchy of needs here).
3.  In a just society, an inequality is justified only if it makes the least advantaged members better off than they would be if the inequality didn't exist.  ("Better off" means 'better able to satisfy at least their basic needs.') *
4.  The vast inequality represented in the ratio between the wealth of billionaires and the poor obviously does not make the poor better off than they would be if the vast inequality didn't exist; that is, if wealth were re-distributed in a way that satisfied every person's basic needs insofar as that is possible without degrading the social order in any significant degree. 
5.  A redistribution of wealth in advanced societies to accomplish the satisfaction of needs as specified in Step 4 would leave today's billionaires still very rich.  (Economic justice does not require elimination of all inequality.)
6.  If, after the redistribution, there were some leftover billionaires, their surplus wealth - the amount not required for them to enjoy a very high standard of living - should be taxed away to be spent on public works, healthcare, education, and cultural projects that have the potential to enhance the well-being of all the citizens.
7.  This would result in the non-existence of billionaires which is what I have been arguing for - zero billionaires - exactly the number which should exist.
          * John Rawls, A Theory of Justice.

Diagram of Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs.  Notice that no stage of need satisfaction requires one to be super-rich.  Maslow's scheme has stood the test of time fairly well, but it reflects a study of only one culture (western, USA) and probably needs revising in some ways.  Nevertheless, the basic idea of a needs hierarchy of some sort in humans of every culture seems sound.