Mind yourself

A while back Dan posted a few thoughts on the mind and “God of the gaps” reasoning, which generated some discussion in the comments. I’d like to revisit that topic a bit.

David Berlinski, an agnostic, writes the following about science in his essay, “On the Origins of the Mind” (HT: Mindful Hack):

In describing the world by means of a differential equation, the mind thus moves from what is local to what is global. It follows that the “model for what science should be” involves an interdiction against action at a distance. “One object,” the Russian mathematician Mikhael Gromov observes, “cannot influence another one removed from it without involving local agents located one next to another and making a continuous chain joining the two objects.” As for what happens when the interdiction lapses, Gromov, following the French mathematician René Thom, refers to the result as magic. This contrast between a disciplined, differential description of a natural process and an essentially magical description is a useful way of describing a fundamental disjunction in thought.

The underlying rule of (natural/empirical) science is this interdiction against causation-at-a-distance. Everything must be explained in terms of one object acting on an object immediately next to it, etc. What this rule presupposes is that the things discussed can be arranged in a spatial relation to each other; this implies that the things discussed are material objects.

Unfortunately this very rule seems to prohibit natural science from explaining mental effects. Consider some mundane examples of things we label “mental effects”: memories of sounds we’ve heard, images in dreams, visualizations of things that are not currently in existence. If anything is clear, it is that these things do not exist in any particular spatial location. This is not to say that there is no material analogue/correlate to these experiences in the brain, but it is to say that these clearly are not parts of the brain; they are obviously, even self-evidently, memories-of-sounds or images-in-dreams.

This of course does not immediately select for substance dualism as the best explanation of these phenomena, but consider: even if one were to say that these experiences were illusory epiphenomena which supervene on biochemical events in one’s material brain, one still is supposing (in fact one must, given the nature of the experience) that these are illusions caused by events in the brain, not events in the brain themselves. The distinction between the physical and what we describe as “mental” remain, even in materialistic explanations of the mental, which leads many to wonder if what is happening is simply an ignoring of the obvious.

What one cannot ignore, however, is that these phenomena are not spatial; if they were, we should in principle be able to give their spatio-temporal co-ordinates in the universe, just like every other material object. But we obviously cannot.

And this means that one cannot line up mental experiences in a spatial grid with material causes, which further means that the interdiction against causation-at-a-distance which is the lifeblood of the natural sciences will forever prevent said sciences from being able to give a full causal explanation for mental effects.

In other words, it seems that the folklore of countless cultures over the centuries understood something obvious which brilliant materialist scientists have managed to miss: human beings, at least partly, are made of magic.