Sunday, 21 October 2012

Mysterians, Mysterianism and the Mystery of the Mind

Progress on The Hard Problem will come not by trying to understand consciousness in physical terms, which is impossible, but by explaining WHY it is impossible to understand consciousness in physical terms... 

Mysterianism is the philosophical position that the mind cannot be explained in terms of physical structures and processes.

It comes in two varieties:

(i) Physical Mysterianism  (also known as epistemological Mysterianism)
(ii) Non-physical Mysterianism
(also known as ontological Mysterianism)

Physical Mysterianism states that the mind is indeed a purely physical process, but we humans lack the ability to understand how it works.

Non-Physical Mysterianism claims that attempting to explain the mind in terms of physical processes is a category error, like attempting to explain the operation of a steam engine in terms of the rules of chess.

Physical Mysterianism

Physical Mysterialism is the philosophical position that although mind is purely physical in origin, humans do not have the intellectual ability to explain consciousness in physical terms.  Any such explanation, although theoretically possible, is in practical terms 'cognitively closed' to us.

Cognitive closure refers to the possibility that certain problems cannot be understood or explained by the human mind. 

In the philosophy of science, physicalist mysterians have adopted the position that some problems are forever outstanding, and not because their solutions do not exist, but rather because the solutions cannot be properly conceived. 

This philosophical position is also sometimes called transcendental naturalism or anti-constructive naturalism. It proposes that the human mind is unavoidably limited, or "closed" in some areas of thinking, and so these areas are forever mysteries.

Philosophy Student Tom of Oxford gives an excellent explanation of Colin McGinn's views on the limits of explanation:

"McGinn has formulated ‘Transcendental Naturalism’: the view that due to our biological and evolutionary background, we are inherently limited to some extent in our cognitive abilities, and thus there will be problems (both scientific and philosophical) that we will never be able to solve or explain in our current status as human beings. To many, this view will at first sight appear extremely pessimistic, but I think it holds a lot of plausibility.

McGinn describes conscious beings as each having a ‘cognitive space.’ This is analogous to our perceptual space, or our physical space: areas within which we can ‘move’, so to speak. Our perceptual space is our visual and auditory field, outside which we cannot see or hear anything. Our physical space is the space within which we can move, and outside of which we cannot. So too with our ‘cognitive space’ - the intellectual area within which we can think, reason, and form concepts; and outside which, we cannot reason.

We have cognitive limitations just as we have perceptual and spatial limitations

If we accept that we are cognitively limited in this sense (and this seems likely, since as McGinn states, ‘we are not Gods, cognitively speaking’), then we should expect that some of the problems of philosophy we will be unable to solve. McGinn most famously treats the problem of consciousness as such a problem, not unsolvable in principle, but unsolvable to us, due to its solution falling outside our cognitive space. After 2000 years of thought and experiment, the basic nature of consciousness continues to remain mysterious: it is a Hard problem with a capital H, and raises a significant explanatory gap. The natural explanation for this mystery, McGinn argues, is not that consciousness itself is inherently mysterious, or is made up of new ‘mental, non-physical stuff’, as Descartes thought. Consciousness is probably as grounded in the physical world as tables or chairs. However, its nature lies outside our cognitive space: our biologically limited concept-forming abilities do not extend to grasping it. We can no more understand consciousness than a slug can understand mathematics.

McGinn also applies his transcendental naturalist view to other problems, such as the problem of Free Will (a response also shared with Noam Chomsky). On reflection, these conclusions may be extremely disappointing: after all, if we agree with McGinn that these problems are in principle unsolvable to us, then we must admit that they could only in principle be solved by a higher intellectual race, 1000s of years of evolution in the future. This is not a nice conclusion to draw, certainly if one is a philosopher.

However, as is often pointed out, the unpleasantness of a view is not a reason not to hold it, especially if one has good philosophical reasons to hold it. And I think we do: why assume that we are intellectually so superior as to solve profound philosophical problems such as the problem of consciousness? Our powers must stop somewhere; and there is good reason to think that consciousness does indeed lie outside our cognitive space. It’s not all so bleak though; McGinn’s view does allow the physicalist/materialist a good response to the arguments for dualism drawn from the explanatory gap between the mental and the physical. The explanatory gap exists not because there is a gap in the world, between physical and mental stuff; it exists because there is a gap in our cognitive abilities to grasp the physical world, and the conscious states that arise from it.

McGinn's more substantial defence of his position as applied to consciousness can be found here, in his classic paper."

Non-Physical Mysterianism

In contrast to physical mysterianism, non-physical or 'ontological' mysterianism (typified by Buddhism) claims that the mind cannot even in principle be explained or understood in physical terms, because its ultimate nature is non-physical.

Here is the traditional Buddhist view:

'when the body dies the 'mechanism' of the body, holding the spirit is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later, perhaps immediately.'  - Alan Turing 

Or, as Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains in more detail:

"The brain is a physical object that can be seen with the eyes and that can be photographed or operated on in surgery. The mind, on the other hand, is not a physical object. It cannot be seen with the eyes, nor can it be photographed or repaired by surgery. The brain therefore is not the mind but simply part of the body. There is nothing within the body that can be identified as being our mind because our body and mind are different entities. For example, sometimes when our body is relaxed and immobile our mind can be very busy, darting from one object to another. This indicates that our body and mind are not the same entity.

In Buddhist scriptures our body is compared to a guest house and our mind to a guest dwelling within it. When we die our [deepest level of] mind leaves our body and goes to the next life, just like a guest leaving a guest house and going somewhere else. If the mind is not the brain, nor any other part of the body, what is it? It is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand objects. Because the mind is formless, or non-physical, by nature, it is not obstructed by physical objects." 
Buddha & the Brain

Does non-physicality imply mysterianism?
According to the Church-Turing-Deutsch principle,  to state that something is non-physical necessarily implies that it is non-algorithmic.  The possibility that the mind may (in part) be non-algorithmic was first explicitly stated by Roger Penrose in The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and The Laws of Physics .   Penrose presented the argument that human consciousness is non-algorithmic, and thus is not capable of being modeled by a conventional Turing machine-type of digital computer. More controversially, Penrose hypothesized that quantum mechanics  plays an essential role in the understanding of human consciousness.

How does a phenomenon being non-algorithmic limit our understanding of it?
What if the mind is indeed non-algorithmic?  All physicalist explanations are by their very nature algorithmic, so attempting a physical/computational/procedural/quantitative/Boolean explanation for non-algorithmic mind would be a category error.

Non-algorithmic phenomena (if they exist) present a profound challenge to scientism, because some/most/all of  the basic algorithmic operations and data structures may not be relevant or applicable to any 'reductionist' explanation.  

To see just how profound this challenge to physicalist/computationalist understanding might be, consider that...

AND may not be applicable

NOT may not be applicable

OR  may not be applicable

IF... THEN... (and its reverse aspect 'because' ) may not be applicable

Numbers and logical states may not be applicable

TRUE and FALSE may not be applicable

The great difficulty in talking about nonalgorithmic phenomena is that although we can say in general terms what they do, it is impossible by their very nature to describe how they do it. (If we could describe in a stepwise manner what was going on, then the phenomenon would be algorithmic!).

Non-algorithmic phenomena

So what phenomena would be applicable in the non-algorithmic realms? Qualia? Semantics? Introspection? Mysticism?  

If any progress in solving the The Hard Problem of the Mind is to be made, it will have to come from the non-algorithmic side of the mind, rather than from the physics-based sciences, such as neurobiology, molecular biology, biophysics etc.  The biophysical sciences are completely stalled in furthering our understanding of the mind, and have been for over a century.

Science cannot explain how events in the brain produce mental experiences, nor how mental intentions produce effects in the brain, such as those which are transmitted via the nervous system to give rise to the voluntary movement of muscles.  

Over 140 years ago, the eminent Victorian physicist John Tyndall wrote:

"... the passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why. 

Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, "How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?" The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable. 

Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the "Why?" would remain as unanswerable as before." 

It isn't that there are no causal relationships between mind and brain, it's just that we can't model (and hence understand) the causality.

The Hard Problem is hard precisely because it tries to apply an algorithmic model of causality to a non-algorithmic process.

All algorithmic models of causality take the form of IF x THEN y ELSE z, where x, y and z are logical and arithmetic functions, assignments and values.

Thus all algorithmic models of causality can be reduced to the state transition table and one dimensional array comprising a Turing machine.

The Kadampa Buddhist view of Mind
In contrast to the mechanistic materialists with their computer model of the mind, the Kadampa Buddhist view is that the mind is (i) Clear and Formless (ii) Cognizing and (iii) Devoid of 'inherent existence' (any defining essence).

Consequently, because algorithms have form (Turing machine or equivalent) they are not attributes of the mind, though the mind may cognize algorithms.

Cognizing implies intentionality or 'aboutness'. Algorithms themselves are not 'about' anything. The apparent 'aboutness' of an algorithm is projected onto it by the mind of its user.

The lack of inherent existence of the mind means that it has no defining essence, nothing to 'keep it as it is', so it can unobstructedly apprehend all objects including those of its own creation. The mind can be 'about' anything whatsoever. The lack of defining essence allows the mind to change, expand, have freewill, and be creative.

The materialists' mechanistic/algorithmic model of the mind breaks down beyond Tyndall's molecular and neuronal states, because this is the territory in which the formless mind operates, projecting meaning/semantics/intentionality onto what it cognizes. 

There is no algorithmic progression for information beyond neural states. All further mental activity comes 'from the other side'. The mind is drawn or driven, either voluntarily or involuntarily (by attachment or aversion), to meet and apprehend its objects.

'The mind is not the brain'
 - Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
For a discussion of why the mind is a non-physical, fundamental aspect of the universe which is not derived from anything else, see Confronting Materialism and the Delusion of the Mechanistic Mind. 

- Sean Robsville

Related articles

Algorithmic compression and the three modes of existence

Non-algorithmic phenomena

Buddhism and Mathematics

Buddhism and Science 

Evolution, Emptiness and Delusions of the Darwinian Mind

Bridging the Explanatory Gap of the Hard Problem 

The Church-Turing-Deutsch Principle and Buddhist Philosophy

All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace

Mind and Mechanism – Buddhism and the Turing Machine