Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Two mysteries solved, then unsolved (or dissolved?)

I have been thinking recently about two great mysteries. I thought I had both solved, but I'm probably wrong.

The first great mystery

What English plural noun shares no letters with its singular form(s)?

It's a noun, so it's not the pronoun "ye" (singular: "thou") or "you" (singular: "thee") or "your" (singular: "thine").

What I came up with was "pants" (singular: "leg," as in "one leg of these pants was hemmed, but the other wasn't" or "put on their pants one leg at a time").

But the Official Answer (from cartalk.com) was: "kine" which basically means "cattle." The singular would be "cow" or maybe "bull". I prefer the latter, but neither shares any letter with "kine".

I still think "pants" was a better answer.

The second great mystery...

I mentioned dualism the other day. Actually I didn't mention it, but I alluded to it. The topic was what Jeff Schwartz (in The Mind and the Brain) calls "don't-have-a-clue materialism", the view that says that "mind" is purely physical, but offers no explanation of how consciousness arises from electrochemical interactions. By whatever means it arises, arise it must via physical means -- so goes the argument -- because these guys hate the idea that two worlds (the physical and non-physical) could somehow interact. So this second mystery is, succinctly, "How can something non-material, the ‘thought’ world, affect something material? And vice versa?"

Materialists, who claim to be the one word of truth in science, trot out this pair of questions in order to ridicule those of us who believe that things like consciousness and decision-making and love and commitment are real if not physical. And I do believe that, by the way: Love and loyalty and promises are real; they are not just illusions conjured up by electrochemical reactions.

So what is my answer to this second mystery? Well, professional philosophers like the Churchlands (who seem to have lost their philosophical moorings IMO) probably have a sophisticated answer to this, but the answer is as simple and as mind-boggling as the greatest invention in history: the written word.

Think of it: an idea, something like "God created the heavens and the earth, and created humans to be co-regents of the earth," or "The same law will apply both to you and to the alien living among you," or "eπi+1=0" (sorry, I just had to throw that one in). Anyway, an idea (which is surely not material; what is its mass?) can be encoded into something physical -- marks on stone or paper. That piece of stone or paper (or a magnetic core, or disk drive or CD-ROM) can carry this abstract idea into the future or across the oceans -- or for that matter transmitted via wire or radio or fiber, as email or fax or...

And this idea can set a subcontinent ablaze, like the Danish cartoon suggesting that followers of Muhammad are violent. Some months after being published, it was taken to some Islamic countries, where Muhammad's followers took offense, staged riots, set buildings on fire, and in so doing proved their accuser correct.

People may object that the idea is communicated to its recipient by purely physical means (something visible or audible, right?) and hence it's still physical affecting physical. But that's no answer unless they can answer the questions Hofstadter asks in his 1970s work, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Though that book is some 30 years old, the answers are still elusive. Gee, I guess we could have said that about AI theorists....

Anyway, what is it about "All men are created equal" that remains the same when translated from text to speech, from English to French or Japanese, or whatever? Nothing material, surely!

And how about the concept of "truth"? -- that's not physical either. And as Lewis asked over six decades ago, if thought is just the irrelevant by-product of electrochemical interactions, why on earth is it trustworthy?

So, as an idea (and its truth or falsity) can come into the physical world by text or speech (in any language), and from the physical world into the mind of a living soul by reading or hearing. Since we do that every day, why is it so hard to imagine that consciousness (not to mention love, fidelity, faithfulness, loyalty, promises and so on) are real albeit not physical?

No comments: