Update and Recent Musings
It’s been a long while since I last wrote, and how things have changed since then! The elephant in the room is of course the pandemic that has swept the globe, and has totally altered the way we live, work and study. Before I jump into anything else, it would be remiss of me not to address what’s happening at the moment.
Some thoughts on the pandemic
It’s funny how a small, 30000 base pair fragment of nucleic acid (source linked at bottom) can wreak such havoc in a world we generally think is impervious to serious trouble. Beginning with China (and quickly spreading), the SARS-CoV-2 virus has seen countries come to a standstill, world trade halted, and travel completely suspended for an indefinite period. Schools, universities and workplaces were moved online to slow the spread of the virus. Entertainment and sports ground to a halt.
However, with the measures that were put in place, many countries have seen great success in blunting the spread of the virus. New Zealand, for example, has already opened rugby matches up for crowds of more than 30000 people (source linked at bottom). The NRL and AFL in Australia are back on (albeit with little to no crowd at matches), and the country is starting to open up once more. In Europe, the major football leagues are playing once more (congratulations to FC Bayern Munich and Liverpool FC for winning the Bundesliga and Premier League respectively), with Formula 1 racing to resume this coming weekend in Austria.
Despite these victories, we as a global community still face a monumental task in defeating this virus. Thankfully, there have been some promising treatments, such as Remdesivir (an anti-viral), and progress is also being made towards a vaccine. We can beat this together.
Despite having not written for six months, my intentions for this blog haven’t changed – my focus will stay on the same topics and I’ll try to continue with book and film reviews when I can get to them.
In my review of “The Case for Miracles”, I mentioned that I was making my way through Dr. William Lane Craig’s “Time and Eternity”. I must confess I’m still making my way through the book! I will say that I was warned beforehand that the book is very technical, and I have found this to be the case (I certainly never expected a book on theology and philosophy to call on my understanding of Special Relativity from high school physics). I am doing my best to finish the book off and will hopefully be done soon.
I have also been reading Dr. Michael S. Heiser’s highly acclaimed book “The Unseen Realm”. I’ve enjoyed this thoroughly so far and hopefully will be able to put a review out soon.
Musings on the mind and soul
In recent months I’ve found myself hooked on podcasts and YouTube videos discussing the nature of mind and consciousness. Having majored in neuroscience for my undergraduate degree, I’ve been fascinated with the nature of mind and consciousness for some time. Indeed, as knowledge in the biological sciences progresses, it seems that the question of consciousness is the last one left to be answered. There is a clear issue in view – the more we learn, the more we realise how different consciousness is to anything else in science.
Some of the more interesting perspectives I’ve listened to are from Michael Jones, Dr. Roger Penrose, and Dr. Joshua Rasmussen & Dr. Dustin Crummett (links to all three at the bottom). I’ve drawn on the latter perspective in particular (i.e. Rasmussen/Crummett) to formulate a view that seems to be coherent and answers many of the questions I have had in the past.
There’s a lot we understand about the physical workings of the brain – we understand where information is processed, which areas of the brain are most active during certain mental processes, how certain drugs can produce changes in emotion, and so on. Despite this, we have at best a map of neural correlates of consciousness, without a way to reconcile these more physical changes with the way consciousness can be produced by the brain.
Michael Jones (InspiringPhilosophy) is one of a sizeable minority group who take the idealist view of reality. Distilled to its core elements, the logic is this – given that all we are truly aware of is that we exist, is it not most logical that everything we see around us is produced by our brains? That is, is it mind that is the fundamental substance, rather than matter?
Jones backs this idea up with data from quantum mechanics (he adheres to a form of the Copenhagen/Orthodox interpretation, which isn’t overly popular in modern times). Personally, I’m not sure how much I agree with his understanding of quantum mechanics, but even discounting that I can see his point about mind being the first thing that we have awareness of, rather than matter.
I’ve linked some of his YouTube videos at the bottom of this article – feel free to have a look at his old playlist about the soul, and some of the newer stuff he’s been releasing (he’s currently in the process of updating his old playlist, and the first video in the new playlist is linked below).
On the other side of the coin is physicalism, the view that only the physical world is fundamental, and that consciousness is merely a product of the rearrangement of physical particles into certain patterns. This is the view espoused by most non-theists (and even some theists), and seems logical because it doesn’t require the introduction of other substances such as the immaterial mind.
I recently heard Roger Penrose’s interview with Lex Fridman (again, linked below), and was intrigued by his position. Like many physicalists, Penrose is fairly agnostic as to the means by which the physical world can produce conscious reality, but does have some ideas. In the interview, he mentions microtubules as a potential source of consciousness (he brings in discussions about general anaesthesia as an example here). He also takes the opposite view to Jones on quantum mechanics, saying that while some think consciousness is key for wavefunction collapse, it could be that wavefunction collapse is fundamental and somehow leads to the production of consciousness.
While I see the physicalist’s point of view, I still find it difficult to believe some of the implications. A purely physical point of view would fail to explain the experiential side of consciousness, and likely tends towards determinism (which has implications that are interesting to say the least – I’ve linked Tim Stratton’s article on it below). Granted, I’m aware that libertarian free will isn’t without its faults but I think it seems to solve some of the issues we see with determinism.
Dualism is a complex subject, and I’m aware that while it appears to be a middle ground between the two extremes of physicalism and idealism, it’s definitely more related to idealism. Recently I’ve listened to a great discussion on dualism by Drs. Joshua Rasmussen & Dustin Crummett. I’d say Rasmussen and Crummett are more on the idealistic side while others are more on the substance dualist side.
I’m not going to spend too much time discussing substance dualism, because I think it carries a lot of baggage of the Cartesian “ghost in the machine” notion that many often criticise.
I do find Rasmussen and Crummett’s position appealing. They seem to take some inspiration from the panpsychist view in formulating their position, and I think they are largely successful in doing so.
Panpsychism is an offshoot of physicalism and is the view held by many prominent philosophers (including Thomas Nagel and Galen Strawson – an article on the topic referencing their arguments is linked at the bottom). It suggests that consciousness may be another fundamental part of physical matter, similarly to charge or mass or spin, none of which are ‘visible’ per se but do have observable effects.
Rasmussen and Crummett build heavily on this view and suggest that dualism is true in this sense – consciousness is still fundamental, but it’s still a part of material reality. (There is a really interesting discussion on mereological nihilism in this video largely directed by Dr. Crummett – I highly recommend giving it a listen).
My own view (out of all the ones described) is very similar to Rasmussen and Crummett’s view. I would tie it all together by saying that while consciousness may be fundamental and a part of material reality, the reality of a first-person stream of consciousness is best explained by a soul being the ‘thing’ that binds it all together.
Hopefully this was a stimulating article – I know these are topics I’ve been wrestling with for a while so it’s good to finally get something out on it. As I mentioned earlier I’ll try my best to get the Unseen Realm done soon, but will likely write some other stuff in the meantime.
Links to sources mentioned:
Heading picture by Jr Korpa on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/@korpa