Physics and phenomenology

by David Mertz on Saturday, September 24, 2011 at 6:09am

I listened recently to a radio show that featured as a guest the wonderful blogosphere science writer PZ Myers, and  another guest who followed the somewhat silly Agape stuff--i.e. a new-agey church/tendency that basically recirculates an old "spiritualism" in believing in a generic "something else" with which consciousness is "attuned."  Basically just Freud's "oceanic feeling" and doesn't have much of the doctrinal politics of most organized religion. It's a relatively harmless trend politically, and generally promotes values of human equality, non-discrimination, and whatnot, notwithstanding its ontological foolishness.

Myers' response to the new-age guest made me feel like he really missed the boat in his answer. Of course, he's a mere biologist, not a philosopher like me. 

Myers pointed out that "consciousness" is epiphenomenal to the physical embodiment of our neural wiring.  And of course, once those neurons shut down, so does the thought or perception that emerges from their activity.  That's obviously true as a matter of actual physics, but it's not actually that principled of a point.  There is well understood structural causation as an explanatory mechanism.  So even though it isn't actually true, it is not impossible to spin a materialistic story about consciousness as structure causing itself to be replicated substantially in a medium other than those particular neurons.  At a simple level, of course, a crystal structure can cause its own replication outside the mass where it initially exists, for example... so there's a simple (physical) model for "continuation of the soul."

 Of course it doesn't actually happen, but an explanation along those lines isn't fundamentally antithetical to a possible materialist story.  For that matter, it even seems moderately plausible that at some point in the future, technology might be able to take a snapshot of the state of all those neural connections in someone's head, and copy them over to something else, like a computer chip that is made to be topologically equivalent (at least by emulation) of the neural state of a person (maybe start with the neural state of an fruit fly, but the same principle would apply).  Maybe we will be (or already are) brains in vats, and so on.

 However, what strikes me as far more fundamentally wrong with these religious or "spiritual" notions of a "soul" or "enduring consciousness" is that they miss the fundamental phenomenological structure of consciousness. Consciousness is a feature of proprioception, and hence "life after death" fails not simply as a matter of physics, but as a matter of phenomonology.  I cannot conceive of my "self" apart from the physical state of my body in which my perception of a self exists; I am not "pure consciousness" but rather a thing that knows itself as something sitting in a chair, with limbs in certain positions, a certain set of visual objects arranged before me, my stomach rumbling just slightly with hunger, etc (or whatever the exact state I am in as I form the immediate concept of self or ego).  Consciousness is always--and by its very quality--embodied.

 So even if gods or future scientist pulled out some thing which was structurally or physically present in me as a living thing, and put it somewhere else, it would no longer be me in any interesting way.  An I  can't exist in a floaty realm of angels and spirits and white light... or at any rate, not an I  that has anything interesting in common with the self that I (David) have.  I'd feel the same way about "soul donation" after I die as I do about any other organ donation (which reminds me that I should get around to filling out the donation form for UCLA medical school, on the off chance my organs could be of some research use).