Category Archives: Mind

The World is a Text

The “correspondence theory of truth” is something like that a sentence is true if and only if it corresponds to the features of reality that it purports to describe. In other words, if you utter a sentence like “it is raining outside,” and it really is raining outside, then your sentence is true. Aristotle put it this way in his Metaphysics:

To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.

So on the other side then, if it really is raining outside and you were to say “it is not raining outside,” then your sentence would be false, according to this theory.

Intuitive, right? The problem is that sentences are strings of symbols that are read or heard and their meanings interpreted, while reality is apprehended in some other way. In our case I can relate to rain drops by putting my body beneath them and getting wet by them. How can a state of affairs that includes things like rain drops correspond in any way to a string of symbols to which someone assigned a meaning?

The only way there can be a correspondence between a sentence and a state of affairs is if, like the sentence, the state of affairs is also meaningful. And the only way a state of affairs can be meaningful is if it is imbued with meaning the same way that a sentence is.

I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.

—Friedrich Nietzsche


Filed under Faith, Mind

Necessity, Chance, or Design?

Bracketing agent-causation, there are only three types of things that govern the universe: constants, quantities, and laws.

By “constants” I just mean phenomena that are universal in nature and unchanging in value. For example the speed of light in a vacuum, the Gravitational Constant, the elementary charge, etc. We can include the rate of entropy in this category if you want (and if you think it is stable).

By “quantities” I mostly just mean the amount of matter and dark matter that exist, and the amount of energy that exists (and the amount of dark energy, if any exists). Theoretically those quantities should remain constant, but if they have changed (or can), then just take their initial values. We can include the amount of entropy in this category if you want, or rather the initial amount of entropy (or zero if there was none).

By “laws” I mean things like gravity (or, more accurately, Relativity), electromagnetism, etc. Keep in mind that most of the laws listed in that link are laws describing the behavior of high-order phenomena like buoyancy and thermodynamics and others that operate on matter at a high level of description like planetary bodies, chemicals, etc. Theoretically all of these logically supervene on lower-level phenomena like the nuclear forces, that operate on matter at a low level of description like subatomic particles. Ultimately it’s probably all governed by just a few fundamental interactions (and maybe even just one), operating on just a few fundamental particles like quarks or maybe strings.

So get this though. It turns out that the values of these constants, quantities, and laws could have been anything. There is nothing about the gravitational constant that makes it logically necessary. It could have been a totally different value altogether. It seems somewhat arbitrary that it is dialed to the value that it is. There is no explanation for it. And the same goes for the amounts of the stuff in the universe, and the laws governing it all—why is energy equal to mass times the square of the speed of light? It could have been the cube of the speed of light, and the speed of light could have been different, or the phenomena could have behaved according to different rules relative to different phenomena altogether.

The possibilities are, logically, infinite.

But it gets weirder. If the values of any one of these things had been different by even a hair’s breadth, the universe wouldn’t have been life-permitting. Planetary bodies couldn’t have formed, space couldn’t have expanded or would have expanded too quickly, etc. The logically possible scenarios according to which the universe could have existed such that it could not have been able to sustain life are infinite, while the life-permitting scenarios are extremely few.

To conceptualize the situation, I like to picture a number line for each value that requires fine-tuning—so there is a number line for the Gravitational Constant, and the value for the GC could have been anything on that infinitely long line, but it needs to fall within an infinitesimal range to play its role in a life-permitting universe, the boundaries for which are marked in red on the line. Then I picture another number line below that with Planck’s Constant, with the markings, and so on. There are a quite a few of these number lines (some lists are longer than others), but even if there were only one, the possibility is equivalent to one in infinity.

Then I like to imagine a lottery, the results from which determine the values for each thing. The lottery is run once to determine each value, and there are an infinite number of possible outcomes each time. This helps me wrap my mind around how improbable a life-permitting universe is. And it doesn’t even touch on the fact that a life-permitting universe alone doesn’t necessarily yield life. You have to somehow get life into it (a topic for another post), and then you need a planet within the universe that can support the life (the specific requirements of which I’ll leave for another post as well).

And yet, here we are.

It’s obvious to me that cosmic fine-tuning cannot be due to necessity, and I explained why earlier. But by now it should be almost as obvious that it is not likely to have occurred by chance either. Like literally, mathematically, it is unlikely. So the question you have to ask yourself at this point is:

How plausible is it that this fine-tuning is due to Design?


Filed under Faith, Mind, Philosophy, Science

Gravity, et al. & Mind

Last Sunday while on a longer bike ride, it occurred to me that gravity, electromagnetism, and the two nuclear forces (or whatever force winds up being posited by the Theory of Everything to supplant them), are examples of non-physical things that operate on physical objects. This is significant because it counters thinkers who object to interactionist dualism (a view I happen to hold, and for more reasons than just the Ice Cream Argument) by claiming that something non-physical cannot operate causally on something physical.

So a naive objection to dualism might be made by someone who thinks up instances of things causing effects in other things by means of purely physical mechanisms. Billiard balls and dominoes smack into each other and knock each around, tires rub against asphalt and move cyclists forward, propellers churn through water and generate momentum, etc. In light of these cases, one might argue, it seems like causation occurs by physical interactions between physical objects (setting aside Humean objections for a second). Assuming non-physical entities like minds could even exist, what would it even look like for them to be able to act causally on physical brains?

I have my opinions about the models for mind-brain interactions that are out there, and maybe I’ll get around to talking about them someday. But in the meantime, to make it seem less weird, it might help to think about gravity. Because of gravity, physical bodies like planets act causally on one another without touching physically. And this even occurs across billions of lightyears of empty space.

Kinda freaky, right?

In fact, it turns out that all causality is this way. The only reason billiard balls ricochet off one another is electromagnetism. If you could zoom way in and observe a billiard ball collision extremely loud and incredibly close (shout out), according to particle physics, you wouldn’t see solid masses striking each other. You would see spheres suspended in space do-si-doing around one another in patterns that, at some distance, make up large spherical clouds. These clouds could easily pass through each other if it weren’t for some invisible force that, when they got close to one another, drove them apart: electromagnetism.

It’s the only reason I’m not drug though the floor into the center of the earth. Gravity is strong but electromagnetism is stronger.

These four fundamental forces are all “non-contact” forces. All of them. The fundamental ones.

So maybe it isn’t too weird to think about causality non-physically, since, well, even the most “physical” examples of causality we can think of like billiard balls and dominoes, are non-physical anyway.

I admit that, in the case of the fantastic four forces, we are not necessarily talking about non-physical entities, but about interactions between physical entities, whereas in the case of the mind, we are talking about a non-physical entity interacting with a physical one. But maybe stopping to remember that causal interactions themselves are all non-physical to begin with can encourage skeptical layman to consider the possibility of souls a little more open-mindedly. After all, these how-type objections to dualism only concern the possibility of interaction to begin with (not the possibility of the existence of non-physical objects). So granting me, for the sake of argument, that there may be non-physical objects like minds, why wouldn’t they be able to interact causally with physical objects?

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Filed under Blogs Proper, Mind, Science

ESP Meta-Analysis

From Wikipedia:

In 1940, Rhine, J.G. Pratt, and others at Duke authored a review of all card-guessing experiments conducted internationally since 1882. Titled Extra-Sensory Perception After Sixty Years, it has become recognized as the first meta-analysis in science.[8] It included details of replications of Rhine’s studies. Through these years, 50 studies were published, of which 33 were contributed by investigators other than Rhine and the Duke University group; 61% of these independent studies reported significant results suggestive of ESP.[9] Among these were psychologists at Colorado University and Hunter College, New York, who completed the studies with the largest number of trials and the highest levels of significance.[10][11]

[8] Bösch, H. (2004). “Reanalyzing a meta-analysis on extra-sensory perception dating from 1940, the first comprehensive meta-analysis in the history of science”. 47th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association.
[9] Honorton, C. (1975). “Error some place!”. Journal of Communication 25 (25): 103–116. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.1975.tb00560.x.
[10] Martin, D.R., & Stribic, F.P. (1938). “Studies in extrasensory perception: I. An analysis of 25, 000 trials”. Journal of Parapsychology 2: 23–30.
[11] Riess, B.F. (1937). “A case of high scores in card guessing at a distance”. Journal of Parapsychology 1: 260–263.

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Filed under Mind, Roundups, Science

Intro to Wittgenstein: BBC Interview w/ Berkeley’s John Searle on YouTube

The rest of the interview can be found here.

Searle published a collection of his book reviews on the philosophy of mind as The Mystery of Consciousness, and his own fully-orbed view is presented in Mind, Language, and Society: Philosophy in the Real World.

The 2010 lectures from several of Searle’s philosophy classes at Berkeley are available on iTunes U: 132 133 138.

Here is Searle’s homepage.


Did you ever get to hear from Searle when you went to Berkeley?


Filed under Mind

The Ice Cream Argument for the Existence of Souls

The other night Lindsey and I had our new friends Dietrich and Rebekah over for dinner. Lindsey made something kind of cool and really tasty, but I don’t remember what it was! They introduced us to a game called “Nerts” and we partook in some chocolate ice cream. Lindsey goaded me for eating mine too fast.

I explained, "But that’s how I like to eat my ice cream!". And it was all down hill from there.

Lindsey, all with her 4 college degrees and years of experience and obsessive research in human psychology, mounted this rigorous case for why it is actually more pleasurable (DCIT) to enjoy ice cream slowly. And then Dietrich got an idea.

He said "There is a way we can settle this", though probably not in those words. (Why put them in quotes (DCTT) then?). He went on to describe the way we could go about settling the issue scientifically. We could setup a double-blind study with huge random samples, controlling for gender, race, blood type, ethnic background, every indicator of physical and psychological health, and even things like SES and other issues that just might affect an individual’s senses. Then we could monitor every biochemical indicator of pleasure (dopamine and serotonin, sure, but the more subtle indicators, too—oxytocin, and even certain higher-order relations between various nervous system functions—not just the neuromodulators) while some groups eat ice cream slowly, and some eat it quickly. We could even have control groups for different flavors just in case peppermint makes the American boys go crazy or peach just doesn’t do it for the Jamaican gals.

Aside from funding issues, I raised questions about how we would tally up the pleasure score to see who’s right between Lindsey and me. Surely the group eating ice cream faster would enjoy a spike in biochemical indicators of pleasure, and surely the group eating it slowly would enjoy longer lasting pleasure, right? So which group enjoys it “more”?

One way to answer that question, Lindsey suggested, is to measure the net. When you add up the amount of pleasure enjoyed by those whose indicators spike, is it more or less in total than those whose indicators linger a long time? Or perhaps our research would drive us to control for timing as well—perhaps there is a pace at which one could enjoy ice cream that would maximize pleasure, and maybe this optimum pace would be different depending on your biological and cultural makeup.

And then it dawned on me. What if I simply prefer the spike in pleasure more than I enjoy the longer lasting pleasure consistent with taking my dessert slowly, even if the net gain in biochemical pleasure indicators is greater at the slower pace?

Think about that. No matter what physical, measurable indicator of pleasure you could possibly track says, it is impossible to empirically determine what my ultimate preferences are with any certainty. I might just prefer to gobble down my Chocolate Malted Crunch, plain and simple.

Regardless of what my dopamine levels supposedly tell you.

So what does that say about me? It says that even after you’ve finished describing everything physical about me, you are not finished describing me. There are some things about me that you can only learn from my self-disclosure, no matter how sophisticated your instruments or how much funding you have.

Which means part of me is not physical. Let’s call that part my “soul”.


Filed under Mind