Sunday, September 18, 2016


When I look back, I'm endlessly amused by the striking differences in my entire set of intellectual sympathies. I get the sense that I'm now someone else than I was in the past—but of course the passage of time already implies that I am, and so is everyone else. As always, the differences show up through a common reference point.

One of the divisive questions that triggers a new reflexive response in me is, "How can an atom be enough to give rise to subjective experience?" A previous version of me regarded this as an excellent argument to stump the disciples of materialistic naturalism. Today, I regard it as too misguided and narrow to have a simple answer. Faulty, messy preconceptions are dissolved in it. It's a symptom of confusion not purely about the essential complexity of subjective experience but also about the boundaries of conceptual levels.

I know I can't speak for everyone who's superficially, or even thoroughly, on my "side". Be that as it may, I've noticed that "we" tend to endorse conceptual levels as alternatives to soul/reality dualism(s). The whole gamut of subjective experiences, which I enjoy mislabeling "mentality" for short (take that, dictionaries), inhabits a conceptual level different from the conceptual level inhabited by the atoms in the question. Mentality isn't a delusion, but neither does it exist as a disparate kind of core reality. It functions as a category that's useful for thinking about some phenomena. This category is apparent at practical scales, where it's more like an average or a summarization of other levels. The items in the mentality level aren't existing apart, because the underlying stuff within all the levels is the same. The levels are like a set of various lenses for studying the stuff.

Fortunately, this picture has numerous familiar precedents and counterparts: weather is one of my favorites. Water droplets are everywhere in the air, floating, moving, and interacting. Yet it's unusual to hear the question "How could a droplet be enough to give rise to a cyclone?" posed as a philosophical puzzle or to hear the suggestion that a cyclone is the sign of something uncanny residing in, and psychically directing, masses of droplets. (Although elemental spirits have arisen time after time in culture.) A cyclone isn't said to be present in each of the droplets in its interior. It's understood to be a sizable grouping of swirling masses of droplet-containing air. It doesn't stop being a cyclone because individual droplets would be seen under great magnification. The conceptual level of droplets happens to be unfeasible for, say, predicting where the cyclone is headed or how much longer it will persist; there are too many droplets and too many effects occurring simultaneously among them. This is partly why cyclones are hard to decipher. The greater ease of analyzing the cyclone at another conceptual level doesn't force the belief that it's a mysterious manifestation from unknown sources.

This is a tidy arrangement to apply to questions about mentality. Mentality's conceptual level is like the cyclone's, and the atom's is like the droplet's. An initial obstacle to accepting this is that mentality doesn't always appear to be as complex as the cyclone. And on occasion it appears to be disconnected from the rest of reality. These impressions are deceptive. Upon steady investigation, either indirectly through modern technologically-aided observation, or directly through meditative introspection, mentality's façade of simplicity consistently evaporates. During many usual conditions, it's a bubbling stew of sensations, emotions, cogitations, wishes, simulations. The nervous system's work to keep it going and feed it continual information is considerable. Nerves extend to the body's very edges and in total consume energy at a high rate. Other creatures have been shown to have some of the characteristics of mentality, which is one more hint that the human variant is a collection of abilities as opposed to a single capacity. The result is that we shouldn't expect a trifling number of aloof atoms to produce and fill mentality. But we should expect to discover what we have: complex outputs corresponding to a complex throng of coordinated components, analyzable at multiple conceptual levels. The project to better trace the specific workings is still in progress, but knowledge is only increasing about the distinctive roles of portions of the brain, for instance.

And yet, reflecting on this "cyclonic" metaphor might hit a second obstacle. Granting that mentality is an aggregate effect doesn't explain the appearances of it acting as a cause. Some of its prominent manifestations are obsessions of varying intensities including addiction. How can they be in the level of mentality and be so influential too? To be dominant and persistent, they must be causing real changes. Their felt importance must be coupled to material importance on other levels. The features of present/past mentality must in some way act as causes of features of future mentality.

As I see it, like the first, this second obstacle is less of a problem after a closer look. A cooperative formation of low-level components certainly does have the potential to provoke an occurrence which is observable at a higher level, and then this occurrence in turn has its own effects that provoke changes back in the components in formation. Actually, this abstract pattern is indispensable in plenty of contexts. The humble thermostat inevitably gets drawn into this topic, as probably the quintessential example. Low-level materials inside it detect shifts in the temperature of its environment. It ends up activating or deactivating the high-level heating or cooling facilities of the environment. Eventually when the environment's temperature shifts again, the thermostat detects the new shift and performs a different action. The thermostat's low-level materials affect, then are affected by, the high-level environment's temperature.

The comparison is very limited in its usefulness. Mentality is more subtle and quick than a thermostat—though body temperature regulation is part of it and extreme temperatures disturb mood. The relevant similarity is that the low-level components of mentality, such as neurons (and all the neuron segments, and all the molecules in the segments, and all the atoms in the molecules...), work together to assemble a breathtaking overall product, and in the process sway low-level components as well. So mentality doesn't exude a peculiar, extra, general-purpose force which is capable of inhabiting and directing "nearby" substances. Solely because it is the group behavior of low-level components, it's capable of manipulating them or their peers.

This is plausible if there's already a suspicion that the components' behavior has the side effect of altering themselves. Perhaps an exchange between them spurs small adaptations in both the sender and the receiver: they grow "closer", i.e. more apt to repeat the exchange. Thus the mental activity of obsession itself "rewires" a creature in such a way that the obsessive thoughts are more likely to return. Thinking habits matter...and thinking habituates matter.

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