Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Mind vs. Matter
If the materialistic view alone can't explain the mind, then what?
As the title of this essay implies, mind and matter are concepts that have, at least historically and to many people, collided over the ages. The confusion remains—and I do not presume, in this essay, to provide an answer. But given the very essential nature of the topic—after all, we are made of matter and somehow have minds—how can one avoid its fascination?
Let's start with the materialist view. The starting point is very simple: everything that exists in the world and that we can see and measure with our tools—the data of our sensorial connection with reality—is made of material stuff. Period. This includes the stones we see with our eyes or pick up with our hands, the galaxies receding from one another we see with our telescopes, the elementary particles we probe with our accelerators. So far so good.
But what about feelings, subjective manifestations of our consciousness, such as love or the sensation of seeing blue? No worries there for the materialists. They don't claim to understand consciousness or how the mind works, but they do claim it's a matter of time. What else is there, anyway? Echoing the Greek Epicureans of twenty-three centuries ago, it's all atoms moving in the void (now translated into quantum fields moving in spacetime), combining into the material structures of the world, including sensations, feelings, etc. Yes, the materialists would argue, the human brain is profoundly complex in its behavior. But this complexity only temporarily precludes us from understanding it. No need to invoke anything else in an attempt to explain it. Our current blindness will dissipate in due time.
This is clearly a statement based on the justified confidence we have in the power of science to make sense of the world. We've done wonders so far, and the mind's turn will come.
But is there a problem with this materialistic view when we move from tangible stuff to the mind? A part of me, trained in the rigors of theoretical physics, fights against it. What else could there be? Isn't the brain a bunch of neurons connected by synapses bathed in flowing neurotransmitters? On the other hand, another part of me, open to the fact that we understand so little of reality and that there is (thankfully!) so much mystery surrounding us, is eager for something new. But what?
Going beyond the materialistic view presents a whole set of issues. Should one bring back Cartesian dualism, presenting some kind of soul as being as real as atoms? Sounds very difficult, especially within Descartes' view that the soul was a different kind of stuff, immaterial, not filling space as normal stuff does. A supernatural explanation to the problem of consciousness is not an explanation, at least not from a scientific perspective. We feel, given what we have been able to describe of the world, that we can do better.
Ontological descriptions of reality
Scientists base their description of reality on what philosophers call ontology—the fundamental players that, in a sense, are the basic building blocks of everything that exists. The Greek Atomists proposed atoms and the void, and now we think of interacting quantum fields as the fundamental entities of reality. Fields have physical properties, or attributes, such as their energy and momentum, their spin (a kind of implicit rotation), and their interactions with themselves and other fields. Their behavior is restricted by fundamental laws of nature, empirically discovered over hundreds of years of experimentation: energy-momentum is conserved, electric charge is conserved, spin is conserved. Particles like the electron, or the quarks that make up protons and neutrons, are excitations of their respective fields, subatomic bundles of energy that move in space and time. Zoom into the workings of the brain at the most fundamental levels, and we would only see fields interacting with one another.
To a growing number of scientists and philosophers, this just can't be the whole story. There is a current resurgence of an old idea called panpsychism, whereby mind is pervasive in the universe. A recent book by philosopher Philip Goff, from Durham University in the UK, explores this view in detail: Galileo's Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. I'm enjoying reading it so much that I want to devote a whole essay to it. But for today, I just want to highlight Goff's central idea. (The reader may enjoy listening to Goff's conversation with physicist Sean Carroll in this podcast, where the materialistic and panpsychic views clash, collegially.)
Panpsychism's appealing beauty
In decreasing degrees, mind exists as a fundamental property of reality in humans, birds, rocks, and electrons. Panpsychism proposes a new ontology, beyond that of the strictly materialistic view, adding a new player, consciousness. So, experience is pervasive, even in things that are not “alive." Sounds crazy, of course, given that we consider experience implicitly as a property of things that are alive. But there is an appealing beauty to it, a sort of unifying principle that brings together all that exists: mind is everywhere and in everything. Now, panpsychism is not a revival of Cartesian dualism: consciousness as a fundamental entity of reality is not supernatural. It's a natural phenomenon, with its own laws. The more complex the material entity, the more complex its manifestation of consciousness.
The hard thing here is to pin down where consciousness, as a fundamental part of physical reality, resides. Or maybe this is the wrong question, predicated by our materialistic worldview. Consciousness is not matter, but it is manifested through it. Is it, perhaps, a bit like life? We can't quite pin down what life is, although we are really good at describing what it does and how it does it.
The jump from nonliving to living matter remains an open question. The expression of consciousness depends on the structure that upholds it (electron, rock, frog, person), but it is a qualitative phenomenon that can't be pinned down in a materialistic description of the world. The crux of the problem, then, seems to be whether the quantitative can express the qualitative, or whether something new is needed to expand our view of reality.
To panpsychists, there is no other way out but to embrace the latter and broaden our worldview. They may have a point.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.