Consciousness 3 – The Adventures of a Naive Dualist

Commuting days until retirement: 408

A long gap since my last post: I can only plead lack of time and brain-space (or should I say mind-space?). Anyhow, here we go with Consciousness 3:

Coronation

A high point for English Christianity in the 50s: the Queen’s coronation. I can remember watching it on a relative’s TV at the age of 5

I think I must have been a schoolboy, perhaps just a teenager, when I was first aware that the society I had been born into supported two entirely different ways of looking at the world. Either you believed that the physical world around us, sticks, stones, fur, skin, bones – and of course brains – was all that existed; or you accepted one of the many varieties of belief which insisted that there was more to it than that. My mental world was formed within the comfortable surroundings of the good old Church of England, my mother and father being Christians by conviction and by social convention, respectively. The numinous existed in a cosy relationship with the powers-that-were, and parents confidently consigned their children’s dead pets to heaven, without there being quite such a Santa Claus feel to the assertion.

But, I discovered, it wasn’t hard to find the dissenting voices. The ‘melancholy long withdrawing roar’ of the ‘sea of faith’ which Matthew Arnold had complained about in the 19th century was still under way, if you listened out for it. Ever since Darwin, and generations of physicists from Newton onwards, the biological and physical worlds had appeared to get along fine without divine support; and even in my own limited world I was aware of plenty of instances of untimely deaths of innocent sufferers, which threw doubt on God’s reputedly infinite mercy.

John Robinson

John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich (Church Times)

And then in the 1960s a brick was thrown into the calm pool of English Christianity by a certain John Robinson, the Bishop of Woolwich at the time. It was a book called Honest to God, which sparked a vigorous debate that is now largely forgotten. Drawing on the work of other radical theologians, and aware of the strong currents of atheism around him, Robinson argued for a new understanding of religion. He noted that our notion of God had moved on from the traditional old man in the sky to a more diffuse being who was ‘out there’, but considered that this was also unsatisfactory. Any God whom someone felt they had proved to be ‘out there’ “would merely be a further piece of existence, that might conceivably have not been there”. Rather, he says, we must approach from a different angle.

God is, by definition, ultimate reality. And one cannot argue whether ultimate reality exists.

My pencilled zig-zags in the margin of the book indicate that I felt there was something wrong with this at the time. Later, after studying some philosophy, I recognised it as a crude form of Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, which is rather more elegant, but equally unsatisfactory. But, to be fair, this is perhaps missing the point a little. Robinson goes on to say that “one can only ask “what ultimate reality is like – whether it… is to be described in personal or impersonal categories.” His book proceeds to develop the notion of God as in some way identical with reality, rather than as a special part of it. One might cynically characterise this as a response to atheism of the form “if you can’t beat them, join them” – hence the indignation that the book stirred in religious circles.

Teenage reality

But, leaving aside the well worn blogging topic of the existence of God, there was the teenage me, still wondering about ‘ultimate reality’, and what on earth, for want of a better expression, that might be. Maybe the ‘personal’ nature of reality which Robinson espoused was a clue. I was a person, and being a person meant having thoughts, experiences – a self, or a subjective identity.  My experiences seemed to be something quite other from the objective world described by science – which, according to the ‘materialists’ of the time, was all that there was. What I was thinking of then was the topic of my previous post, Consciousness 2 – my qualia, although I didn’t know that word at the time. So yes, there were the things around us (including our own bodies and brains), our knowledge and understanding of which had been, and was, advancing at a great rate. But it seemed to me that no amount of knowledge of the mechanics of the world could ever explain these private, subjective experiences of mine (and I assumed, of others). I was always strongly motivated to believe that there was no limit to possible knowledge – however much we knew, there would always be more to understand. Materialsm, on the other hand, seemed to embody the idea of a theoretically finite limit to what could be known – a notion which gave me a sense of claustrophobia (of which more in a future post).

So I made my way about the world, thinking of my qualia as the armour to fend off the materialist assertion that physics was the whole story. I had something that was beyond their reach: I was a something of a young Cartesian, before I had learned about Descartes. It was a another few years before ‘consciousness’ became a legitimate topic of debate in philosophy and science. One commentator I have read dates this change to the appearance of Nagel’s paper What is it like to be a Bat in 1973, which I referred to in Consciousness 1. Seeing the debate emerging, I was tempted to preen myself with the horribly arrogant thought that the rest of the world had caught up with me.

The default position

Philosophers and scientists are still seeking to find ways of assimilating consciousness to physics: such physicalism, although coming in a variety of forms, is often spoken of as the default, orthodox position. But although my perspective has changed quite a lot over the years, my fundamental opposition to physicalism has not. I am still at heart the same naive dualist I was then. But I am not a dogmatic dualist – my instinct is to believe that some form of monism might ultimately be true, but beyond our present understanding. This consigns me into another much-derided category of philosophers – the so-called ‘mysterians’.

But I’d retaliate by pointing out that there is also a bit of a vacuum at the heart of the physicalist project. Thoughts and feelings, say its supporters, are just physical things or events, and we know what we mean by that, don’t we? But do we? We have always had the instinctive sense of what good old, solid matter is – but you don’t have to know any physics to realise there are problems with the notion. If something were truly solid it would entail that it was infinitely dense – so the notion of atomism, starting with the ancient Greeks, steadily took hold. But even then, atoms can’t be little solid balls, as they were once imagined – otherwise we are back with the same problem. In the 20th century, atomic physics confirmed this, and quantum theory came up with a whole zoo of particles whose behaviour entirely conflicted with our intuitive ideas gained from experience; and this is as you might expect, since we are dealing with phenomena which we could not, in principle, perceive as we perceive the things around us. So the question “What are these particles really like?” has no evident meaning. And, approaching the problem from another standpoint, where psychology joins hands with physics, it has become obvious that the world with which we are perceptually familiar is an elaborate fabrication constructed by our brains. To be sure, it appears to map on to the ‘real’ world in all sorts of ways, but has qualities (qualia?) which we supply ourselves.

Truth

So what true, demonstrable statements can be made about the nature of matter? We are left with the potently true findings – true in the the sense of explanatory and predictive power – of quantum physics. And, when you’ve peeled away all the imaginative analogies and metaphors, these can only be expressed mathematically. At this point, rather unexpectedly, I find myself handing the debate back to our friend John Robinson. In a 1963 article in The Observer newspaper, heralding the publication of Honest to God, he wrote:

Professor Herman Bondi, commenting in the BBC television programme, “The Cosmologists” on Sir James Jeans’s assertion that “God is a great mathematician”, stated quite correctly that what he should have said is “Mathematics is God”. Reality, in other words, can finally be reduced to mathematical formulae.

In case this makes Robinson sound even more heretical than he in fact was, I should note that he goes on to say that Christianity adds to this “the deeper reliability of an utterly personal love”. But I was rather gratified to find this referral to the concluding thoughts of my post by the writer I quoted at the beginning.

I’m not going to speculate any further into such unknown regions, or into religious belief, which isn’t my central topic. But I’d just like to finish with the hope that I have suggested that the ‘default position’ in current thinking about the mind is anything but natural or inevitable.

Consciousness 2 – The Colour of Nothing

Commuting days until retirement: 437

When it comes down to basics, is there just one sort of thing, or are there two sorts of thing? (We won’t worry about the possibility of even more than that.) Anyone who has done an elementary course in philosophy will know that Descartes’ investigations led him to believe that there were two sorts: mental things and physical things, and that he thus gave birth to the modern conception of dualism.

Stone lion

Lifeless

As scientific knowledge has progressed over the centuries since, it has put paid to all sorts of beliefs in mystical entities which were taken to be explanations for how things are. A good example would be vitalism, the belief in a ‘principle of life’  something that a real lion would possess and a stone lion would not. Needless to say, we now know that the real lion would have DNA, a respiratory system and so on, all of whose modes of operation we have much understanding – and so the principle of life has withered away, as surplus to needs.

Descartes mental world, however, has been harder to kill off. There seems nothing that scientific theory can grasp which is recognisable as the something it is like I discussed in my previous post. It’s rather like one of those last houses to go as Victorian terraces are cleared for a new development, with Descartes as the obstinate old tenant who stands on his rights and refuses to be rehoused. But the philosophical bulldozers are doing their best to help the builders of science, in making way for  their objectively regular modern blocks.

Gilbert Ryle led the charge in 1949, in his book The Concept of Mind. He famously characterised dualism as the doctrine of ‘the Ghost in the Machine’: to suppose that there was some mystical entity within us corresponding to our mind was to be misled by language into making a ‘category mistake’. Ryle’s standpoint fits more or less into the area of behaviourism, also previously discussed. Then, in the 1950s, identity theory arose. The contents of your mind  colors, smells  may seem different from from all that mushy stuff in your head and its workings, but in fact they are just the same thing, if perhaps seen from a different viewpoint. There’s a name, the ‘Morning Star’, for that bright star that can be seen at dawn, and another one, the ‘Evening Star’, for its equivalent at dusk; but with a little further knowledge you discover that they are one and the same.

Nowadays, while still around, the identity theory is somewhat mired in technical philosophical debate. Meanwhile brain science has made huge strides, and at the same time computing science has become mainstream. So on the one hand, it’s tempting to see the mind as the software of the brain (functionalism, very broadly), or perhaps just to attempt to show that with enough understanding of the wiring of those tightly packed nerve fibres, and whatever is chugging around them, everything can be explained. This last approach  materialism, or in its modern, science-aware form, physicalism  can take various forms, one of them being the identity theory. Or you may consider, for example, that such mental entities as beliefs, or pains, may be real enough, but are ideally explained as  or reduced to  brain/body functions. This would make you a reductionist.

But you may be more radical and simply say that these mental things don’t really exist at all: we are just kidded into thinking they do by our habitual way of talking about ourselves folk psychology, as it’s often referred to. Then you would be an eliminativist  and it’s the eliminativists I’d like to get my philosophical knife into here. Although I don’t agree with old Descartes on that much (I’ll expand in the next post), I have an certain affinity for him, and I’m willing to join him in his threatened, tumbledown house, looking out at the bulldozers ranged across the building site of 21st century Western philosophy.

Getting rid of qualia  or not

Acer leaves

My acer leaves

I think it would be fair to say that the arch-eliminativist is one Daniel Dennett, and it’s his treatment of qualia that I’d like to focus on. Qualia (singular quale) are those raw, subjective elements of which our sensory experience is composed (or as Dennett would have it, we imagine it to be composed): the vivid visual experience I’m having now of the delicately coloured acer leaves outside my window; or that smell when I burn the toast. I’m thinking of Dennett’s treatment of the topic to be found in his 1988 paper Quining Qualia, (QQ) and in Qualia Disqualified, Chapter 12 of his 1991 book Consciousness Explained (CE: with a great effort I refrain from commenting on the title). Now the task is to show that, when it comes to mental things, all that grey matter and its workings is all there is. But this is a problem, because when we look inside people’s skulls we don’t ever find the colour of acer leaves or the smell of burnt toast.

Dennett quotes an introductory book on brain science: ‘”Color” as such does not exist in the world: it exists only in the eye and brain of the beholder.’ But as he rightly points out, however good this book is on science, it has its philosophy very muddled. For one thing, the ‘eye and brain of the beholder’ are themselves part of the world – the world in which colour, we are told, does not exist. And eyes and brains have colours, too. But not like the acer leaves I’m looking at. There’s only one way to get to where Dennett wants to be: he has to strike out the qualia from the equation. They are really not there at all. That acer-colour quale I think I’m experiencing is non-existent. Really?

Argument 1: The beetle in the box

Maybe there is some help available to Dennett from one of the philosophical giants  Wittgenstein. Dennett calls it in, anyway, as support for the position that ‘the very idea of qualia is nonsense’ (CE, p.390). There is a famous passage in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations where he talks of our private sensations in an analogy:

Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box … The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

I don’t see how this does help Dennett. It is part of Wittgenstein’s exposition known as the private language argument. He is seeking to show that language is a necessarily public activity, and that the notion of a private language known only to its one ‘speaker’ is incoherent. I think it’s significant that the example of a sensation he uses is pain, as you’ll see if you follow the link. Elsewhere Wittgenstein considers whether someone might have a private word for one of his own sensations. But, like the pain, this is just a sensation, and there’s no publicly viewable aspect to it.   But consider my acer leaves: my wife might come and join me in admiring them. We have a publicly available referent for our discussion, and if I ask her about the quality of her own sensation of the colour, she will give every appearance of knowing what I am talking about. True, I can never tell if her sensation is the same as mine, or whether it even makes sense to ask that. Nor can I tell for certain whether she really has the sensation, or is simply behaving as if she did. But I’ll leave that to Wittgenstein. His argument doesn’t seek to deny that I am acquainted with my ‘beetle’  only that it ‘has no place in the language game’. In other words, my wife and I can discuss the acer leaves and what we think of them, but we can’t discuss the precise nature of the sensation they give me – my quale. My wife would have nothing to refer to when speaking of it. In Wittgenstein’s terms, we talk about the leaves and their colour, but our intrinsically private sensations drop out of the discussion. Does this mean the qualia don’t exist? Just a moment I’ll have another look… no, mine do, anyway. Sorry, Dan.

Argument 2: Grown-up drinking

Bottled Qualia

Bottled Qualia

Another strategy open to Dennett is to point out how our supposed qualia may seem unstable in certain ways, and subject to change. He notes how beer is an acquired taste, seeming pretty unpleasant to a child, who may well take it up with gusto later in life. Can the adult be having the same qualia as the child, if the response is so different?

This strikes a chord with me. I started to sample whisky when still a teenager because it made me feel mature and sophisticated. Never mind the fact that it was disgusting  much more important to pretend to be the sort of person I wanted to be. The odd thing is  and I have often wondered about this  that I think I can remember the moment of realisation that eventually came: “Hey  I actually like this stuff!”

So what happened? Did something about these particular qualia suddenly change, rather as if I one day licked a bar of soap and found that it tasted of strawberries? Clearly not. So maybe we could say, that, although it tasted the same, it was just that I started to react to it in a different way  some neural pathway opened up in my brain that engendered a different response. There are difficulties with that idea. As Dennett puts it, in QQ:

For if it is admitted that one’s attitudes towards, or reactions to, experiences are in any way and in any degree constitutive of their experiential qualities, so that a change in reactivity amounts to or guarantees a change in the property, then those properties, those “qualitative or phenomenal features,” cease to be “intrinsic” properties, and in fact become paradigmatically extrinsic, relational properties.

He’s saying, and I agree,  that we can’t mix up subjective and objective properties in this way, otherwise the subjective elements – the qualia – are dragged off their pedestal of private ineffability and are rendered into ordinary, objectively viewable, ones. He goes on to argue, with other examples, that the concept of qualia inevitably leads to confusions of this sort, and that we can therefore banish the confusion by banishing the qualia.

So is there another way out of the dilemma, which rescues them? As with the acer leaves, my whisky-taste qualia are incontrovertibly there. Consider another type of subjective experience  everyone probably remembers something similar. You have been working, maybe in an office, for an hour or two, and suddenly an air conditioning fan is turned off. It was a fairly innocuous noise, and although it was there you simply weren’t aware of it. But now that it’s gone, you’re aware that it’s gone. As you may know, the objective, scientific term for this is ‘habituation’; your system ceases to respond to a constant stimulus. But this time I am not going to make the mistake of mixing this objective description with the subjective one. A habituated stimulus is simply removed from consciousness  your subjective qualia do change as it fades. And something like this, I would argue, is what was happening with the whisky. To a mature palate, it has a complex flavour, or to put it another way, all sorts of different, pleasurable individual qualia which can be distinguished. These put the first, primary, sharp ‘kick’ in the flavour into a new context. But probably that kick is all that the immature version of myself was experiencing. Gradually, my qualia did change as I habituated sufficiently to that kick to allow it to recede a little and allow in the other elements. There had to come some point at which I made up my mind that the stuff was worth drinking for its own sake, and not just as a means to enhance my social status.

Argument 3: Torn cardboard

Torn cardboard

Matching halves

Not convinced? Let’s look at another argument. This starts with an unexpected – and ingenious  analogy: the Rosenbergs, Soviet spies in the US in the cold war era, had a system to enable to spies to verify one another’s identity: each had a fragment of cardboard packaging, originally torn halves of the same jelly package (US brand name Jell-O). So the jagged tear in each piece would perfectly and uniquely match the other. Dennett is equating our perceptual apparatus with one of the cardboard halves; and the characteristics of the world perceived with the other. The two have co-evolved. Anatomical investigation shows how birds and bees, whose nourishment depends on the recognition of flowers and berries, have colour perception, while primarily carnivorous animals  dogs and cats for example  do not. But at the same time plants have evolved flower and berry colour to enable pollination or seed dispersal by the bees or birds. The two sides evolve, matching each other perfectly, like the cardboard fragments. And of course we are omnivores, and have colour perception too. When hunting was scarce, our ability to recognise the colour of a ripe apple could have been a life-and-death matter. And so it would have been for the apple species too, as we unwittingly propagated its seeds. As he puts it:

Why is the sky blue? Because apples are red and grapes are purple, not the other way around. (CE p378)

A lovely idea, but what’s the relevance? His deeper intention with the torn cardboard analogy is to focus on the fact that, if we look at just one of the halves on its own, we are hard put to see anything but a piece of rubbish without purpose or significance  it is given validity only by its sibling. Dennett seeks to demote colour experiences, considered on their own, to a similarly nullified status. Here’s a crucial passage. ‘Otto’ is Dennett’s imaginary defender of qualia  for present purposes he’s me:

And Otto can’t say anything more about the property he calls pink than “It’s this!” (taking himself to be pointing “inside” at a private, phenomenal property of his experience). All that move accomplishes (at best) is to point to his own idiosyncratic color-discrimination state, a move that is parallel to holding up a piece of Jell-O box and saying that it detects this shape property. Otto points to his discrimination-device, perhaps, but not to any quale that is exuded by it, or worn by it, or rendered by it, when it does its work. There are no such things. (CE p383 – my italics).

I don’t think Dennett earns the right to arrive at his concluding statement. There seem to me to be two elements at work here. One is an appeal to the Wittgensteinian beetle argument we considered (‘…taking himself to be pointing “inside”…’), which I tried to show does not do Dennett’s work for him. The second appears to be simply a circular argument: if we decide to assert that Otto is not referring any private experience but something objective (a ‘color-discrimination state’) then we have only banished his qualia by virtue of this assertion. The fact that we can’t be aware of them for ourselves does not change this. The function of the cardboard fragment is an objective one, inseparable from its identification of its counterpart, just as colour perception as an objective function is inseparable from how it evolved. But there’s nothing about the cardboard that corresponds to subjective qualia  the analogy fails. When I think of my experience of the acer leaves I am not thinking of the ‘color-discrimination state’ of my brain  I don’t know anything about that. In fact it’s only from the science I have been taught that I know that there is any such thing. (This final notion nods to another well-known argument – this time in favour of qualia – Frank Jackson’s ‘knowledge’ argument  I’ll leave you to follow the link if you’re interested.)

But this being just a blog, and this post having already been delayed too long, I’ll content myself with having commented on just three arguments from one physicalist philosopher. And so I am still there with Descartes in his tottering house, resisting its demolition. In the next post I’ll enlarge on why I am so foolhardy and perverse.

Consciousness 1 – Zombies

Commuting days until retirement: 451

Commuting at this time of year, with the lengthening mornings and evenings, gives me a chance to lose myself in the sight of tracts of England sliding across my field of vision – I think of Philip Larkin in The Whitsun Weddings:  ‘An Odeon went past, a cooling tower, and someone running up to bowl…’  (His lines tend to jump into my mind like this). It’s tempting to enlarge a scene like this into a simile for life, like the one that Larkin’s poem leads into. Of course we are not just passive observers, but the notion of life as a film show – a series of scenes progressing past your eyes – has a certain curious attractiveness.

A rather more specatcular view than any I get on my train journey. Photo: Yamaguchi Yoshiaki. Wikimedia Commons

A rather more specatcular view than any I get on my train journey.
Photo: Yamaguchi Yoshiaki. Wikimedia Commons

Now imagine that, as I sit in the train, I am not quite a human being as you think of one. Instead I’m a cleverly constructed robot who appears in every way like a human but, being a robot, has something important missing. The objects outside the train form images on some sensor in each of my pseudo-eyes, and the results may then be processed by successive layers of digital circuitry which perform ever more sophisticated interpretative functions. Perhaps these resolve the light patterns that entered my ‘eyes’ into discrete objects, and and trigger motor functions which cause my head and eyes to swivel and follow them as they pass. Much, in fact, like the real me, idly watching the scenes sliding by.

Now let’s elaborate our robot to have capabilities beyond sitting on a train and following the objects outside; now it can produce all the behaviour that any human being can.This curious offspring of a thought-experiment is what philosophers refer to as a zombie – not the sort in horror films with the disintegrating face and staring eyeballs, but a creature who may be as well behaved and courteous as any decent human being. The only difference is that, despite (we presume) the brain churning away as busily as anyone else’s, there are no actual sensations in there – none of those primary, immediate experiences with a subjective quality: the fresh green of a spring day, or the inner rapture of an orgasm. So what’s different? There are a number of possibilities, but, as you will have guessed, the one I am thinking of is that inner, subjective world of experience we all have, but assume that machines do not. This is well expressed by saying that there’s something that it is like to be me, but not something that it’s like to be a machine.(1)  The behaviour is there all right, but that’s all. In the phrase I rather like, the lights are on but nobody’s at home.

Many people who think about the question nowadays, especially those of a scientific bent, tend to conclude that, of course, we must ultimately be nothing but machines of one sort or another. We have discovered many – perhaps most – of the physical principles upon which our brains and bodies work, and we have traced their evolution over time from simple molecular entities. So there we are – machines. But conscious machines – machines that there is something it is like to be? It has frequently been debated whether or not such a machine with all these capabilities would ipso facto be conscious – whether it would have a mind. Or, in other words, whether we could in principle build a conscious machine. (There are some who speculate that we may already have done so.)

One philosophical response to this problem is that of behaviourism, a now justly neglected philosophical position.(2) If you are a behaviourist you believe that your mind, and your mental activity – your thoughts – are defined in terms of your behaviour. The well-known Turing Test constitutes a behaviourist criterion, since it is based on the principle that a computer system whose responses are indistinguishable from those of a human is taken for all practical purposes to have a mind. (I wrote about Turing a little while ago – but here I part company with him.) And for a behaviourist, the phrase ‘What it is like to be…’ can have no meaning, or at best a rather convoluted one based on what we say or do; but its meaning is plain and obvious to you or me. It’s difficult to resist repeating the old joke about behaviourism: two post-coital behaviourists lie in bed together, and one says ‘That was great for you – how was it for me?’ But I take the view of behaviourism that the joke implies – it’s absurd.

Behaviourists, however, can’t be put down as burglars or voyeurs: they don’t peer into the lighted windows to see what’s going on inside. It’s enough for them that the lights are on. For them the concept of a zombie is either meaningless or a logical impossibility.  But there is another position on the nature of the mind which is much more popular in contemporary thought, but which has a different sort of problem with the notion of a zombie. I’m thinking of eliminative materialism.

Well, as I write this post, I feel it extending indefinitely as more ideas churn through that machine I refer to as my brain. So to avoid it becoming impossibly long, and taking another three weeks to write it, I’ll stop there, and just entitle this piece as Part 1. Part 2 will take up the topic of eliminative materialism.

In the meantime I’d just like to leave one thought: I started with a snatch of Philip Larkin, and I’ve always felt that poetry is in essence a celebration of conscious experience; without consciousness I don’t believe that poetry would be possible.


(1) The phrase is mainly associated with Thomas Nagel, and his influential 1974 paper What is it Like to be a Bat? But he in turn attributes it to the English philosopher Timothy Sprigge.

(2) I’m referring to the philosophical doctrine of behaviourism – distinct from, but related to the psychological one – J B Watson, B F Skinner et al.

Right Now

Commuting days until retirement: 491

Right now I am at home – another day off – waiting for some gravel to be delivered for our front drive. Right now, you are reading this (well I hope somebody is, or will). You can see I am having trouble with tenses here, because your ‘now’ is not my ‘now’. I know you are not reading this now, because I haven’t published it. But you know you are reading it now.

BlackboardThis all might seem a bit trivial and pointless, but stay with me for a bit. The notion I am circling around is the curious status of this concept of now. Let’s approach it another way: imagine yourself back at school, in a physics lesson. This may seem either an enticing or an entirely appalling prospect to you, but please indulge my little thought experiment. The teacher has chalked a diagram up on the blackboard (well, that was the cutting edge of presentation technology when I was at school). There’s the diagram up on the right. t1 and t2 obviously represent two instants of time for the ball, in its progress down the slope.

Somehow you are managing to stay awake, just. But in your semi-stupor you find yourself putting up your hand.

‘Yes?’, says the teacher irritably, wondering how there could be any serious question to be asked so far, and expecting something entirely facetious.

‘Er – which one is now?’ you ask. The teacher could perhaps consider your question carefully, for the sake any deep conceptual problem concealed within it, but instead she wonders why she bothered to get up this morning.

Not in the curriculum

Warwick University

Warwick University

However there is a serious philosophical issue here – admittedly not in the physics curriculum, to be fair to the teacher. And the reason it’s not in the curriculum is that the concept of ‘now’ is alien to physics. ‘Now’ is entirely confined to our subjective perception of the world. Think of the earth in its nascent state, a ball of molten lava and all that. Does it even make sense to imagine there was a ‘now’ then? We can say that this red-hot lava whirlpool formed before that one did – but we can’t say that either of them is forming now. Well of course not, in the obvious sense – it was four and a half billion years ago. But you could say that there was a time when your first day at school was ‘now’; and you can also say that there was a time when the execution of Marie Antoinette was ‘now’ – for somebody, that is, even perhaps for the unfortunate woman herself. But as for the formation of the earth – there was no one around for whom it could be a ‘now’. (Small green men excepted.)  You’re thinking of it as a ‘now’, I expect, but that’s because in your imagined scenario you are in fact there, as some sort of implicit presence suspended in space, viewing the proceedings.

It’s odd to try and visualise an exclusively objective world – one without a point of view – “The View from Nowhere” as the philosopher Thomas Nagel has put it; it’s the title of one of his books. In such a world there is no ‘now’, and therefore no past and no future, but only a ‘before’ and ‘after’ relative to any arbitrary point in time. And I was always struck by the way that T. S. Eliot, in Burnt Norton, from his Four Quartets, associates ‘time past and time future’ with the poetic and spiritual, and ‘time before and time after’ with the prosaic and mundane.

Language

Our language – indeed most languages – are built around the ‘now’, in that tenses correspond to past and future. Without the subjective sense of a ‘now’, language would surely work in a very different way. Interestingly, there is an example possibly relevant to this from the Pirahã people of the Amazon, who have been studied by the controversial linguist Daniel Everett. Their relationship to the passage of time seems to be different from ours – Everett claims that they have no real sense of history or of planning for the future, and so live in a kind of perpetual present. Correspondingly, inflections in their utterances are related not to temporal comparisons, like our tenses, but to the surrounding circumstances – e.g. whether something being described is right here, or is known first-hand, or has been reported by some other person. (Everett originally went to them as a Christian missionary, but was dismayed to find that they had no interest at all in Jesus unless Everett could claim to have met him.)

So all this would seem to support a philosopher I remember reading a long time ago. I don’t remember who he was, and can no longer find the passage. But I remember the sentence “Our language has a tiresome bias in favour of time.” I think this man was from the old-school style of linguistic philosophy, which held that most philosophical problems can be resolved into confusions caused by our use of language – and so time concepts were just another example of this. But I don’t think this is at all adequate as an approach, Pirahã or no Pirahã. However my language works, I would still have a sense of the differing character of past events, which cannot be changed, and future events, which mostly cannot be known – and of course a present, a now, which is the defining division between them. I would be surprised if the experience of a Pirahã person did not include that.

Space and time

How about another attack on the problem – to make an analogy between the spatial and the temporal? The spatial equivalent of ‘now’ is ‘here’. And there doesn’t seem to be any perplexity about that. ‘Here’ is where I am, er, now. Oh dear. Maybe these aren’t so easy to separate out. Perhaps ‘here’ seems simpler because we each have our own particular ‘here’. It’s where our body is, and that’s easily seen by others. And we can change it at will. But we all share the same ‘now’, and there’s not a lot we can do to change that. There is, of course, the remote possibility of relativistic time travel. I could in some sense change my ‘now’ relative to yours – but when I come back to earth I am back in the same predicament – just one that differs slightly in degree.

But do we all share the same ‘now’?  Here’s a slightly more disturbing thought. I have made out that my own sense of ‘now’ is confined to my own private experience, and doesn’t exist in the world ‘out there’. And the same is true of you, of course. I can see and hear you, and I find from your behaviour and the things you say that you are experiencing the the same, contemporaneous events that I am. But it’s not your private experience, or your ‘now’ that I am seeing – only your body. And your body – including of course your brain – is very much a part of the world ‘out there’. It’s only your private experience which isn’t, and I can’t experience that, by definition. So how do I know that your ‘now’ is the same as mine? Do we each float around in our own isolated time bubbles?

I think perhaps there is a solution of some sort to this. If your ‘now’ is different from mine, it must therefore be either before it or after it. Let’s suppose it’s an hour after. Then if my ‘now’ is at 4.30, yours is now at 5.30. But of course there’s a problem with the now that I have put in bold. It doesn’t refer to actual time, but to a sort of meta-time by which we mark out time itself. And how could this make sense? It’s rather like asking “how fast does time flow?” when there is no other secondary, or meta-time by which we could measure the ‘speed’ of normal time.

So perhaps this last idea crumbles into nonsense. But I still believe that, in the notion of ‘now’ there is a deep problem, which is one aspect of the more general mystery of consciousness. Do you agree? Most don’t.

But right now, the gravel is here, and is spread over the drive. So at least I’ve managed to do something more practical and down-to-earth today than write this post. And that’s a little bit of my past – or what is now my past – that I can be proud of.

Gardening Leave

Commuting days until retirement: 499

A cold, windy garden, seen from a warm study

A cold, windy garden seen from a warm study

A day off, supposedly to do some gardening, but the sub-zero wind is keeping me indoors. Delicate plants, we office workers.

A chance, at any rate, to reflect on that back and forth journey that the rest of my fellow commuters have resumed for the week. When you look at all those other blank faces on the train, you do wonder about what’s behind them. When they look around at their fellow passengers (carefully, so as not to catch anyone’s eye), what are they thinking about this repetitive enterprise that we are all involved in? Why does it take place – beyond, that is, our individual needs to make a living? Backwards and forwards – reciprocal motion, like the pistons in a car engine. The pistons keep the car moving, irrespective of where it’s going, and of course we commuters, busy driving the engine of society, have no more idea than do the pistons where our vehicle is headed.

No doubt that is unfair to some, who have occupations with a very explicit social purpose. But I’d guess that the majority of us work for private companies, and are driven by the profit motive – a force as amoral as the torque of the car engine, which may be propelling the car towards sunlit uplands of some sort – or over a cliff edge. The difference in our case, of course, is that there’s no driver, no consciously directed intention, no steering wheel.

Or is there? Here we could head into either politics or religion, those two traditionally taboo topics of polite conversation. But it’s religion I’m thinking of. A few posts ago I referred to a Bible-reading passenger sitting right next to me on the train. I see such people regularly, and no doubt they are quite clear about the purpose question. But the rest of us?

Winning the argument

It seems as if the atheists are currently winning the argument. Once rather less focused, nowadays they have some strident and articulate standard-bearers. This has perhaps lent some conviction to the waverers among us. There was a time when religion, for most, was more of a social badge. My father, for instance, would unhesitatingly write “C of E” (Church of England) on any form that asked for religion, but would never be seen in a church, other than for weddings or funerals. And this wasn’t hypocrisy: he was quite up-front about his beliefs, or lack of them. More recently, most people would mutter something vague to the effect of “Well, I think there must be something…” if asked the religion question.

But now, surveys and censuses show that there are a many more who will happily call themselves atheists, or at least agnostics. The New Atheists, as they now tend to be called, have got across the message that we don’t need a purpose imposed on us from above – we can formulate our own. We don’t, furthermore, require a God or a scriptural set of rules in order to tell right from wrong. And our sense of wonder has its needs catered for by the impressive discoveries of science.

So I think, on the face of it, I have pretty good credentials as an atheist. I more or less agree with the above statements; I don’t believe in an old man in the sky, or some more diffuse entity of which he is a personification; and creationism seems to me a ragbag of prejudice, ignorance and wishful thinking, as opposed to the coherent and justified body of theory which evolutionary biology gives us. Large, received bodies of doctrine from organised religion I am unable to swallow. So why is it, that if I see, for a example, a TV debate between an atheist and an apologist of religion, I feel myself instinctively sympathising with the religious point of view? (That’s assuming the religious side doesn’t represent creationism, or some swivel-eyed variety of fundamentalism.)

Stop worrying

Could it be the unbearable smugness which seems to hang like a cloud around the atheist programme? Individually, the most vocal atheists seem to be perfectly decent people, and some – for example Dawkins and Hitchens – are (or were) brilliant writers in their different ways. But somehow the public face of the movement seems to patronise us, with its inverted holier-than-thou expression.

That ghastly bus advertising campaign didn’t help: for those who don’t know it, there was an atheist-sponsored poster campaign on London buses a few years back, with the slogan ‘THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. SO STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE.’  Of the many reasons why this is objectionable, it’s difficult to pick out the worst. I would go for the fact that many people are worried a lot of the time, and not enjoying their lives, and for whom the existence of god is the last thing on their minds. So to be be dogged by fatuous slogans such as this does not make things any easier for them.

At least the campaign provided us with a bit if fun, when a religious group complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The advertising code of practice lays down that ads must be “Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful’. Well, we can probably get away with the first three here, so that leaves the issue of truthfulness. Which leaves the hapless ASA with the task of ruling on the probability of the existence of God. I have heard of no outcome to this, so perhaps they are still deliberating. Or maybe they judged the probability of the existence of God to be the same as that of Carlsberg being the best lager in the world.

Stuff and experience

No – for me, what is most importantly wrong with the atheist agenda is what it leaves out, what its vision simply doesn’t encompass. There are many aspects to this, so let’s start with the moral one. Of course, we can agree, our morals don’t come direct from the ten commandments. or any other body of doctrine. They come from the fact that we are sentient, conscious beings, who know what it is to suffer, and understand the importance of not inflicting such suffering on other beings – and of promoting their happiness and wellbeing.

That of course, I know, is a massive oversimplification, culturally, historically and emotionally – but it still has at its heart this question of consciousness, of private experience. No scientific theory yet has come anywhere near providing an account of this which can assimilate it into our account of the physical world. There’s ‘stuff’, and there’s ‘experience’. Science deals with the first; morality has more to do with the second. I’d maintain that the question of how, or whether, we can unify our knowledge of the two lies at present outside science, and will remain so unless science becomes a very different kind of enterprise.

These mysteries are, I would maintain, part of what religion is a response to – they are its stock-in-trade, what it is most comfortable with. But for the atheist/materialist agenda it’s necessary to assert that science has either explained them already, or will have them under its belt after some more investigation. I would respectfully disagree – and hope to expand on this in future posts.