Life, Death, Thanatophobia and/or Free Will

Monday, October 9, 2006 22:54 | Filed in Articles, Faith & Forteana, Science, Thanatophobia, The Pickards

This ties in to some extent with my previous thoughts on my thanatophobia, or at least it does in my mind anyway.

There are two main views of consciousness. One, Cartesian duality, suggests that the mind is a separate and non-physical construct which influences the brain. In this case, the mind could easily be considered to be the equivalent of a soul, and so this option tends to be preferred by people who believe, or want to believe, in an afterlife.

The second view is a more materialistic view, and it is that what we perceive as and understand as consciousness is entirely a construct of the physical brain and without this brain there can be no consciousness. This certainly seems to be the more scientific approach and indeed is the approach favoured by a number of prominent scientists, such as Richard Dawkins. This is generally the default atheistic postion.

And then of course you’ve got the agnostic position to add on top of that: which in a restatement of the famous cogito ergo sum declares that I know my consciousness exists now, but I have no way of knowing whether or not that consciousness will exist after my physical brain no longer exists, if I do find out, it will mean that it does, but if it doesn’t, then I won’t be here to know otherwise.

Are you still with me so far?

Now I’m not an expert on either position, so I may be mis-representing one or both positions, but there are to my mind problems with both. With the dualism theory, you need a mechanism by which the incorporeal “mind” can influence the physical world in terms of the brain, for which we have no adequate explanation.

And with the purely materialistic theory, we’re left with the certain knowledge that there’s no such thing as free will, and that what appears to be free will, including my decision to write this article about free will, is actually deterministic.

I guess I’d better explain that, right?

Firstly, the materialistic argument is explicit that there is no “external” mind; our consciousness is entirely a product of the chemicals, electrical impulses and so on that rattle around in our brains. This means that the thoughts we are thinking are generated not because of some external mind, but because of a particular state of electronic impulses and chemical balances. Right?

Now take a step back.

If there’s no such thing as an “external” mind, then nothing has ever had an external mind. The earliest life forms to develop what could be termed “thoughts” (whether actually conscious thoughts or just impulses) were determined purely by their environment, because there’s nothing external to that that could have come into play. At this point, it all comes down to physics.

Your thoughts are therefore purely a product of your internal physical environment .The idea of “nurture” is redundant. Why?

Okay, another step back.

Let’s recap: the first creature to have thoughts was having them purely on the basis of it’s physical environment. So what influences the thoughts that the descendants of this creature have? Genetics, which can be considered part of the organism’s historical environment. It’s upbringing — which is down to the physical environment it’s parent was inhabiting because we’ve accepted the parent did not have thoughts independent of it’s own environment, and then the organism may have thoughts created by its own physical environment.

At no point can any organism stop and act in a way contrary to it’s genetic nature (historical environment), it’s nurture (historical environment) or it’s immediate physical environment, because any thoughts it has must be caused by one of these.

That’s not to say the future is entirely deterministic: events that are truly random may still influence others, so radioactive decay, genetic mutation and so on may all change the story of the planet, but, according to this logic, every thought that everyone has and every decision that everyone makes, and therefore every action that everyone takes can theoretically be traced back to some form of physical root.

This is the materialist view, like it or lump it.

Which presumably means that if I were to commit a series of crimes, it might appear that I’d made some conscious decision to do this — and I may even have felt that I made such a decision — but instead it would have been an inevitable consequence of my internal physical environment, which I have not at any point in time been able to exert any free will over — because I simply haven’t had any, despite the fact that I may have believed otherwise — because I’m not able to think thoughts that aren’t created by my internal or external physical world.

I’m not saying that this theory is nonsense. I’m just pointing out that if you hold to this theory, you must be prepared to take it to its ultimate conclusion. It could certainly be argued that the decisions and opinions I arrive at are those that a cleverly programmed computer fed with the same or similar information could arrive at. Possibly a sufficiently sophisticated computer could become self-aware. At this point would it still be running a set of programs, or would it be conscious? If we’d term it conscious, then is that consciousness simply a result of a sufficiently sophisticated set of programs?

… and let’s leave The Matrix out of this!

In which case, the whole of human achievement is a fallacy: it was something that has been derived by a combination of the physical environment and by random factors and nothing else.

So we’re left with two unsatisfactory options:

  • Body and mind are separate; the mind is a separate and non-physical entity such as a soul which can exert influence over physical entities; or
  • The mind is a product of the body and physical environment and there is therefore no such thing as free will

I’m not saying that either of these options is inherently more right than the other. All I’m saying is that these are the only two options, take your pick.

… and yes, this is what it’s like to live inside my head.

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6 Comments to Life, Death, Thanatophobia and/or Free Will

  1. Sebastien billard says:

    October 10th, 2006 at 8:42 am

    There is also the buddhist view, who consider there is no self, that mind (in fact mental phenomenons, in pali “nama”) rely on physic ( physicial phenomenon, rupa) and that physic rely on mind.

    There is no real free will as there is no self, and what we call “self” is conditionned by both nama and rupa. But will is dynamic and we can decide in the instant we live.

  2. Grant Broome says:

    October 13th, 2006 at 3:27 pm

    Surely you should have taken up a career in theology or philosophy ;)

    I’m not sure that I’ve heard a decent response to the “Why am I?” question even though I’ve asked that question a lot since I “fell from grace”. a little while back.

    I really think you’ve got to decide what and why you are for yourself. Of course, this process will be determined by your past experiences and your genetic makeup, but I really wouldn’t worry about that too much. You can’t change any of that. You can only make decisions based on it. One thing is for certain. You are unique. There will never be another Jack Pickard quite like you, and that means no-one will be able to influence the world around them in quite the same way. I’m not trying to dampen your discussion though, it’s very, very interesting. I just think that the answer that you are looking for (perhaps I’m being a bit presumptuous) is elsewhere. All the best.

  3. JackP says:

    October 13th, 2006 at 3:52 pm

    Grant, I’m not necessarily expecting to find the answers (although it would be nice), I’m just enjoying the debate. I love the whole area of philosophy, theology, and the scientific “borderlands”.

    And frankly, one of me is enough for any universe.

  4. fulvio says:

    November 28th, 2006 at 9:23 pm

    Dear JackP,
    Let me disagree about your description of the “materialistic” view of the mind. At a time when we disover that event the most trivial physical phenomenon like the falling pattern of raindrops is virtually unpredictable, It cannot be accepted a vision of biology = determinism. Life is a curious way that matter can behave, and is already going against thermodynamics (organisms transform energy to keep themselves organised). On ehas to think that the brain has evolved to provide vertebrates with a behavioral repertoire as large, flexible and unpredictable as possible. In other words, the biological machine is made to generate diversity. Of course endless factors influence our behaviour at any time; this does not mean, however, that we could not have behaved differently. In fact, I wish it were like you say! In this case, humanity would just behave predictably towards to goal of preserving itself, which clearly is not the case! Not only humans, any animal is responsible of what it does, as it could always have behaved differently. Vulnerability, or bias, toward a given act does never mean this act is inevitable. This is the difference between a living organism ad a computer.

  5. Vicky says:

    September 8th, 2007 at 7:54 am

    But if you go deeper than that, fulvio, there are many other factors when considering the decisions we make. We can always act differently if we want to, not just towards a predictable end… but can we really? Considering we can’t go back in time and run the same event several times to test the results, nobody can know this for sure. But logic would dictate that, if no variables were changed prior or during the formation of a conscious decision, the same series of chemical and electrical impulses would always, 100%, without deviation, lead to the same decision – whether it was predictable or not from the outside.

    Phew. Heavy stuff. Love it. :)

  6. Vicky says:

    September 8th, 2007 at 7:57 am

    (Sorry if this is doubleposting, but I keep trying to submit the comment after the page timed out the first time – and WordPress is reporting I’ve already commented, even though I’ve refreshed several times and don’t see it. If so, feel free to delete any extras!)

    [ED: Not to worry - you got identified as a 'potential spammer' for some reason and your comments got stuck in my spam queue. I'll tweak my spam filters to score you positively!]

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