Of course, I know my name. I know what I look like. I know what my favorite foods are and what makes me laugh.
I seem to know things about me, but I have never felt that I actually know me.
What does it mean to be me? Why am I me and not someone else? Do I become a different person when I make choices? Am I a fixed being? How much of who I am is predetermined? Why didn’t I come with a fucking manual?
Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I spend too much time in my head. Maybe I have such a small number of problems over here in the first world that I let my imagination run wild with anxiety that doesn’t actually exist.
Either which way, coming to terms with being me has been incredibly difficult. I’ve spent countless hours reading books, watching films, wandering streets, and gazing at landscapes in an attempt to try to understand some unknowable aspect of what it means to be alive. To be conscious.
I still don’t think I have any definitive answers. But I have done enough research to at least begin to better delineate the problem.
So here’s the first entry in a series of posts I’ll be writing that cover the myriad of issues we face every day as we attempt to rationalize our existence.
Let’s Talk About Consciousness
What is consciousness and where the hell does is come from?
I think, therefore I am. I know I exist because I can perceive my existence.
This is quite a unique ability. Think of all the other arrangements of protons and electrons in this universe that don’t elicit a form of sentient life.
All these things exist around us, and yet consciousness only seems to manifest itself in such a small number of objects. And of all the conscious beings, none of them possess the level of awareness that is present in humans.
Why is this? And how is this possible?
In all that we can perceive in a seemingly physical world, where does our consciousness come from? How do we explain the dichotomy between the physical world of all we can see and smell and touch and that of the non-physical world that allows us to perceive all that we can see and smell and touch?
These answerless questions come together to form a little something philosophers like to call the Mind-Body Problem.
One of the most popular examples of the conundrum of consciousness was framed by 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes. Put most simply, the problem is that the body, a physical entity, encapsulates the mind, a non-physical entity. And there seems to be no easy way to explain why this is.
The problem is typically approached with two different philosophies: Monism or Dualism.
What is Dualism?
The idea that the mind and the body are not made of the same substance is known as Substance Dualism. Also referred to as Cartesian Dualism because Descartes fathered the expression. 1Robinson, Howard, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (2016). Dualism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
As a Catholic, Descartes’s religious opinions influenced his philosophical thinking. His belief in Dualism was a response to his religious belief that each person’s conscious mind is a fragment of their soul. 2Watson, Richard A. (January 1982.) What Moves the Mind: An Excursion in Cartesian Dualism. American Philosophical Quarterly. JSTOR.
This is not to say that Descartes didn’t have a host of other intellectual reasons he believed in Dualism. It’s just that his religion was the cornerstone of his philosophy of the mind. 3Descartes is also not to be denigrated as a philosopher for his religious belief. He was actually accused of being a deist in his time for his ...continue
But Descartes wasn’t even the first person to suggest the idea of Dualism. He was simply the first to frame it within the context of consciousness and the relationship to one’s body. Philosophers since the dawn of time, from Plato, to Aristotle, to Aquinas, have argued for the existence of an immaterial soul.
What resulted from these years of discourse is the belief in modern Christianity that each person possesses a soul, which serves as that person’s essence. When someone dies, their physical body is left behind in the physical world. Their soul is then transported to some version of a Heaven or a Hell, which exist in some other metaphysical realm.
In order to accept that the soul can exit the physical world to enter the metaphysical world, one must be able to accept that the physical and metaphysical worlds themselves are separate. But not only are they separate, they are made of different types of substances. Otherwise they would be able to interact.
Of course, Dualism has nothing to say about religion or an afterlife. And every Christian denomination has differing religious opinions on the relationship between one’s soul and the afterlife. The main point is that Dualism came about as a school of thought in direct response to theological opinions.
So it’s no coincidence most modern Dualists also happen to be religious. Dualism only seems to be a solution to the Mind-Body Problem when used to justify one’s theological beliefs. Most modern philosophers are not religious and very, very few subscribe to Dualism. 4I can’t speak for everyone, but those philosophers who do subscribe to Dualism do so for reasons far more nuanced than that of religion.
But many everyday people are Dualists without knowing it. If you believe in an afterlife or a soul, then you are already a de facto dualist.
And there’s a lot of religious people in the world. So there are a lot of Dualists.
And I get it. Dualism is an appealing way to approach the Mind-Body Problem while allowing certain religious beliefs to remain intact. We all like to believe we won’t die. That a part of us can’t be killed. Because we’re people. We’re conscious. Life can’t justend. What would nothingness be anyway? What is life if we can’t perceive it?
And the answer, though unpopular, is nothing. Life is nothing if we can’t perceive it. Nonexistence is nonexistence. Other people may continue on long after you have died. But the nature of consciousness is such that your perception is reality. If you are trying to fathom what your life will be like eons after you die, just think back to how it was eons before you were born.
Dualism doesn’t solve the Mind-Body Problem anyway. It only proposes a further conundrum: how can the physical and metaphysical worlds be able to interact with one another when they are made up of two different kinds of substances?
This is known as the problem of interaction, and it’s only a restatement of the Mind-Body Problem.
We might not understand the nature of life or consciousness, but an ignorance about one thing is not evidence of another. Our inability to explain the phenomenon of individual perception is not proof of a soul.
To simply say that our consciousness is made up of some unknowable substance just because we can’t see it, touch it, or comprehend it is lazy. That’s the same line of thinking that produced marvelous ideas such as “The Earth is flat,” or “The Earth is the center of the universe.”
Perception always places you at the “center of the universe.” The term that delineates one experience from another is known as a reference point and it skews objective observation. It makes your perceptions subjective, which is the nature of consciousness.
It also might seem as if I am bashing the entire study of metaphysics here as well. I will admit that certain metaphysical thought experiments are nothing more than philosophical masturbation. Argument for the sake of argument. Thought for the sake of thought.
But I do appreciate the field of metaphysics for its ability to suggest that which we assume to be true need not be so. I do not mean to suggest that metaphysical conclusions reached by themselves are lazy. But a line does need to be drawn between what we conclude philosophically and what we conclude scientifically.
Not so long ago, many questions that are now answerable by science were demarcated as metaphysical in nature because of our scientific ignorance about the world.
Thus, a metaphysical exploration should only be embarked upon once one has utilized all of the most modern problem solving tools at one’s disposal. And I would argue that Dualism was only concluded to be a viable solution to the Mind-Body Problem because at the time of its inception, contemporary science provided no framework with which to solve the problem.
But that’s no longer the case today. Modern conceptions of physics or neuroscience disprove several of Descartes’s hypotheses about consciousness. Which is why the notion of Dualism is intellectually lazy.
At least by today’s standards. Descartes had faulty intel, so we can give him a pass.
So for all of these reasons, I do not find Dualism to be a valid model for explaining the Mind-Body Problem.
For theists, or more specifically, Christians, the mind-body problem isn’t a problem at all. The idea of the soul (or any type of eternal consciousness) is taken as a given. The rest of the philosophy of Dualism unravels from that point. It is the only way for theists to rationalize an irrational proposition.
Of course, there are modern philosophical conceptions of Dualism that do not begin from a religious start mark. I wholeheartedly disagree with these Dualists as well, but I at least commend them for their intellectual rigor. I feel the greater problem is the people who hold philosophical opinions ignorant of the larger framework those opinions are a part of. Like religious folk who unknowingly believe in Dualism.
I believe one of the goals of philosophy is to utilize logic and rhetoric in order to uncover truths about the world. Or at least to better understand it.
But you can’t begin your search for truth with one unjustified assumption and then claim that you have contributed to the philosophical discussion. Removing the religious nuance from the Mind-Body Problem leaves a sea of people with no justified reasoning for their belief in Dualism.
Once we accept that Dualism is not a valid solution to the Mind-Body Problem, we are able to begin to approach the issue in another way. And the possible solution we come to is Monism.
What is Monism?
While Dualists believe that the mind and body are two separate entities, Monists maintain that they are ultimately one.
Monism is the idea that the entirety of our universe is made up of one substance, known as the monad. 5The concept of the monad has since been absorbed by science as what we today call the atom. You can liken the monad to whatever the smallest ...continueIf every tangible and intangible thing were to be reduced down to its most basic component parts, monists argue that we would be able to observe one distinct element that merely arranges itself in different ways to allow the multitude of forms of objects we see every day appear to be wholly separate.
Monists also put forth the idea that if our entire universe originated from one infinitesimal point in spacetime, everything, including both our physical and mental selves, must be comprised of one singular substance.
In physics, this can also be understood as the law of conservation of energy. The universe contains all of the energy it always has and always will.
Monists who believe that the physical and metaphysical can be equally reduced down to the monad are known as Neutral Monists; they are monists in the purest, most traditional sense. 6Mastin, Luke. (2008). Monism.
In the same way that apples and oranges are both comprised of monads at the most basic level, the physical and mental are too comprised of the same essential substance. Thus, the physical and mental are neutral in reference to one another because they are essentiallyjust two different ways of organizing the same phenomenon.
Other monists disagree. Idealists believe that only the mind is real and that the physical world is merely a manifestation of the mental world.
Perhaps this is the case. Perhaps our subjective perceptions of the physical world are the best representations of the physical world itself, and all that we observe objectively about the physical world is nothing more than the projection ofPlato’s forms. Maybe we’re living in some type ofMatrix or some shit.
On the other hand, Physicalists believe that only the physical world is real and that the mental world is a manifestation of the physical world.
Most contemporary philosophers (and scientists) support this line of thinking. It’s thought that the universe was created some 13 billion years ago, life somehow began on Earth, creatures evolved into other creatures, and eventually humans weaseled their way into existence.
Biological evolution tells us that the physical body preceded mental consciousness. Our ability to perceive the world is a fairly new one in the grand scheme of abilities. Thus, our mental selves are merely representations of the incessantly firing neurons of our brains.
To the physicalist, your consciousness is nothing more than the scientific miracle of firing synapses in the brain. The monad is just another word for whatever the smallest particles that make up everything in our universe happen to be.
Monism isn’t without its own set of problems though. What is the fundamental nature of the monad? How does it comprise matter? Is matter infinitely divisible? Where did matter come from? And, ultimately, why is there something instead of nothing?
Dualists of the religious variety would be quick to answer that all of the problems with Monism are answered by (religious) Dualism. And that might be the case if answers can be defined by that which quells your curiosity or anxiety about the universe and your existence. As opposed to that which is objectively true.
So What Does This All Mean?
Fuck if I know.
There are obviously great disparities between Neutral Monism, Idealism, and Physicalism. Monism seems to leave us with more questions than answers. But I don’t think that means we should out and out abandon Monism. Let’s think this through:
There’s no way to tell if the physical world is only a manifestation of the mental world. And it does us little good to assume this is the case. Science and perception both become a complete waste of time within this model. And unless the limits of our perceptions change, it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to understand the true nature of reality.
This is the ultimate problem with metaphysics: it’s the incomprehensible evil twin of science. Many topics that were once metaphysical in nature have been hijacked by science once we realized that there was a real-world tether we could latch onto and study. Science has brought us closer to understanding the nature of reality better than metaphysics ever could.
Why? Because metaphysics, as with most general branches of philosophy, only attempts to make progress through argumentation or thought experimentation. This might be helpful when debating morality or aesthetics, but it doesn’t do jack shit when you want to understand the nature of reality.
As soon as you cross the precipice of science into metaphysics, you enter a land of infinitely plausible potentialities that cannot be tested or falsified. Each idea is equally probable because there is no ultimate metric with which to assert degrees of truth or falsehood.
You can try to compare metaphysical constructs to physical ones to determine plausibility, but if the metaphysical adhered to any laws of the physical, wouldn’t they cease to be metaphysical?
All of this is not to say that metaphysics is unimportant. The study of metaphysics has paved the way for scientific understanding. Knowledge acquisition always begins with a question.
But this doesn’t mean we can debate things of a purely metaphysical nature in the same way we would debate things we can objectively prove.
Accepting the futility of metaphysical debate tosses Idealism out the window. We’ll probably never know if the non-mental isn’t real. We’ll probably never know if we’re in the Matrix. We’ll probably never know if this is all just a fucked up game of Sims. Without a metaphysical reference point, anything beyond perception is seemingly unknowable.
This line of thought also makes Neutral Monism hard to swallow. If the monad is neither physical nor mental, then it might as well only be mental because we have no hope of objectively being able to understand it.
So what does that leave us with?
The bottom line is that we can only come to know what we can perceive. And we can only perceive the physical world. Our perceptions may indeed manifest themselves from the mental world, but we can’t perceive our perceptions. So the assumption that our perceptions are manifestations of the physical world (i.e. our brains) is the best assumption we currently have. (Does your brain hurt yet?)
This is not to say that Physicalism solves the Mind-Body Problem or the Hard Problem of Consciousness. For starters, we still have no idea where consciousness comes from.
For example, let’s liken the human brain to a big machine. One large enough that you can observe its parts and how the pieces make up the whole. If we could do such a thing, would we be able to observe consciousness manifest itself from the atoms or quarks or bosons that make up the matter of our neurons? Would we be able to see the specific scientific process taking place? Objectors argue that we would not.
More importantly, what is matter? Beyond scale of size, what is the difference between the vast amounts of empty space between the subatomic particles that make up our brain matter and the millions of stars, planets, and asteroids that make up our universe? Matter itself is mostly empty space.
With the right reference point, one might be able to observe consciousness as an entirely different phenomenon. Could our universe possess consciousness?
Of course, these questions are beginning to venture into the metaphysical. But it makes sense. If we could answer the Hard Problem of Consciousness scientifically, we wouldn’t need metaphysical conceptions of it. Again, metaphysics picks up where science leaves off.
So perhaps Physicalism is true. Perhaps we have yet to discover the secrets of neurology or the Standard Model that would solve the Hard Problem. Perhaps what seems metaphysical now only seems that way because we don’t understand it. Ideas like atomic theory or general relativity were surely laughable when they were first introduced.
The past few decades of research regarding the brain and how it functions are shedding new light on this issue. If we’re lucky, this problem may soon be able to be reframed as a scientific one instead of a philosophical one. That will sure as shit make it a little easier for me to sleep at night.
Of course, Idealism or Neutral Monism could be true after all. As of now, there’s really no way to tell.
I’ll give credence to the idea that some metaphysical construct concerning consciousness could be true. At least for the sake that they can’t be proven to be false. Even Dualism, which I spent the first half of this article bashing.
But I draw the line at Religious Dualism. That shit doesn’t make any sense.
If we’re going to take anything from this giant mindfuck, let it be this:
Our Consciousness Is Not Special
Sure, we are unique as a species because of how we are able to perceive the world in a way that no other species can. And you are unique in that only you can perceive the world in the way that you do.
But your mind as a piece of the mental world, your life force, your “soul,” is wholly unimportant at worst, and entirely disconnected at best. And it is not eternal in either regard.
We must realize that the question of “why” itself is a purely human phenomenon that makes little sense in the grand scheme of the universe.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t question things. There is certainly knowledge to be gained from the natural world.
But there is no meaning to be sought and no answers to be found in the question of what we are to do with our consciousnesses.
There are no moral or ethical duties given to us in the physical world that will allow us to reap benefits in some metaphysical one. 7This is not to say that we have no moral obligations, though. Just none that will benefit us after we die.
Any meaning we want to ascribe to our lives, to our consciousness, needs to be done so here in this world.
Pinning hope on a long game of eternal life that will never come to fruition will yield nothing greater than a squandered existence. We may have the freedom to decide how we live our lives, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a damn shame to see someone idling by in this world waiting for a train to the next one that will never come.
This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time.
Descartes is also not to be denigrated as a philosopher for his religious belief. He was actually accused of being a deist in his time for his repeated attempts to rationalize the existence of God, which was viewed by contemporary church leaders as blasphemous and an attack on the idea of faith. While his philosophy may have been skewed by religion, he was nonetheless an essential philosophical figure in the 17th century.
I can’t speak for everyone, but those philosophers who do subscribe to Dualism do so for reasons far more nuanced than that of religion.
The concept of the monad has since been absorbed by science as what we today call the atom. You can liken the monad to whatever the smallest subatomic particle might be.