The week prior to the northern autumnal equinox is a charmed time of the year in my life. On a certain day this week both of my children were born, and three years before the first of those birthdays I saw fit to write this. It starts out fairly harmlessly about the weather and moving, then kind of rambles off from there.
I like the sound of thunder. I like the polished crunchiness of the sound. The sharpness of the initial shock is buffed and smoothed by atmospheric turbulence between you and the initiating bolt, so that several miles away thunder has a gentleness completely out of tune with the violence of the event that spawned it. It’s a nice sound, reassuring and lively in its rumbling rambling, and I’ll miss it in Seattle.
I’m moving to Seattle soon. When I arrive there, it’ll be my home, indefinitely. I’m happy about this. I like Seattle, too. Its quirks and charms outweigh its inconveniences and disappointments. Seattle weather isn’t loud like southern weather, though, and thunder is as much a rarity around Puget Sound as snow. I’ll just have to soak up the sound of thunder while I’m in Texas and Arizona. Like sunshine in winter and highways free of traffic, it’ll be in short supply in the north.
I think I’m trying to figure out decisions, and this sentence is more revealing than I’d like it to be. I feel more like an archeologist, poking around for artifacts produced long ago, than a philosopher or scientist, clevering my way to virgin truths. Why do my opinions feel like musty old things built by people of another time and place? I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to be writing, I just feel like I’m supposed to say something.
What I’m really trying to figure out is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life right now. I feel like there are some paths that are more correct than others, and I’m not entirely sure which ones are more correct and how to choose between them. Worse than that, I’m not even convinced I know how to go about determining what rightness and wrongness are when applied to the practical decisions in my life. My decision-making machinery is running rough, and I can’t remember what frequency it’s supposed to be running at anyway.
The reason this is all bothering me so much, part of the reason at least, is because I have so much time to incubate these notions. When I’m working 80 hours a week in school, or 40 at work and spending most of my remaining time networking and commuting, and coming to know a new community, there simply isn’t time to ponder if my plans and actions are in good alignment with the best proper path for me. Now, with no classes and office time muddling up my schedule, there’s plenty of time to wonder what I’m supposed to do.
Maybe this whole process is just nonsense. I’ll be moving to a city I like soon, doing a job I enjoy and find meaningful, and I’ll be near women and men whose company I enjoy. Why not just roll with it and see what happens? Adapt as needed as circumstances arise. It’s easy and a little tempting to just sit back and allow things to happen, but still part of me seems to reject that notion. No, it says, we’re supposed to do something bigger.
So evidently I believe there’s a such thing as bigger and better things to do, and I also believe that I should do them. Preference formulation. Once preferences are formed, a rational actor is supposed to make decisions in such a way as to maximize the output according to stated preferences based on currently available information, with updates to actions as new data arrive. To some extent that makes sense. I don’t want to be the one forming the preferences, though. I want my preferences to be discovered. I want them to line up with truths of the universe. I don’t want them to be playthings I conjure into existence for my own amusement. To be honest, I don’t find such things particularly amusing.
So if I’m not deciding my preferences, who or what is? I believe in objective morality. I believe in objective morality because I believe that there are some actions that lead to people being happy, being more fulfilled, having joy instead of sorrow in their hearts. Actions that lead those directions, for the most people, are good. Those that lead us astray are bad. So does that make me a utilitarian?
I can’t be a utilitarian because I believe that there are such things as horrible means, and I don’t believe that even the noblest ends justify them. Involuntary human sacrifice for organs probably could increase the total number of life-years lived, but I consider that a horrible means to a noble end. That’s an extreme example, but the reality seems to be that you can’t reduce moral decisions to arithmetic on where the greater good lies. On a practical level, decisions that seem abhorrent through some other schema come out as good. This needs to be addressed.
Kantian ethics are also problematic. The idea that there are certain things you just don’t do to people is intuitive, but also leads to independently-deselected decisions. Stealing, killing, and lying all seem intuitively to be wrong things to do, yet it’s not difficult to imagine practical, low-energy ethics situations where they must be done. What other options are there for determining ethics more faithfully to our intuition?
The Christian virtue ethics solution appears to be this: Make decisions that correspond to the types of decisions that typify virtues. That is, do things that faithful, chaste, charitable, loving, hopeful, kind, humble, patient, temperate, and diligent people do. This requires a model of what these virtues are, and their failure modes, and Catholic Christianity provides one through the Catechism. There are three key difficulties encountered here:
· The Catholic picture of virtue failure modes seems to conflict with my intuition on several points of human behavior.
· Accepting the Catholic ethics scheme implies historical and cosmological implications that I wouldn’t ordinarily do.
· There are other potential competing schemes. I have not evaluated them to as great a degree as the Catholic scheme, and probably will not have sufficient leisure time in my life to do so.
It makes sense to be driven by Catholic ideas of sin and virtue if you believe that the teachings of the Catholic Church are correct. Making your morality Catholic implies becoming Catholic. This is okay, but a clear image of what this entails needs to be evaluated.
At RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) this week, several people said something along the lines of “I’ve always known that at the end of my life I would stand before God and be judged.” I have no reason to suspect that they were trying to mislead me, and such belief is common enough in this part of the country that there’s no reason not to trust their self-evaluations. Still, it’s a foreign kind of confidence to me. The idea of being absolutely certain of not just an afterlife, but an afterlife that so closely resembles the mainstream media’s tropes on Christian teleology, is an oddly pungent kind of confidence to me.
I’m not sure quite what I believe about life, death, and life after death. I’m mostly confused, I suppose. We know from empiricism that consciousness is tightly coupled with the brain. Mind states seem to correlate with drugs, level of sleep, and blood flow patterns observable in the brain. For life after death to be a sensible concept, there needs to be a way for the soul to exist apart from the brain, since brain inactivity and later decomposition is the very definition of death. Everyone dies, but nobody knows about consciousness thereafter.
Is it possible to imagine souls (Or minds if the language bothers you. It doesn’t bother me in particular.) can exist apart from brains? Certainly, in the same sense that it’s possible to imagine living brains existing without souls embedded in them. I don’t believe such mindless brains exist, but I can imagine them. The main reason I don’t believe they exist is because I find the idea of inconsistent brains unsettling and unsatisfactory. There’s no way to test for a difference between a human and a zombie, and I know that I’m a human. Why bother considering that anyone who looks like a human is a zombie, then? If zombies exist, the world also seems diminished somehow. I enjoy spending time with friends and loved ones so much not because I derive some sort of positive emotional quantity from them, but because I yearn for closeness to other human souls. Dopamine vs. serotonin is a relevant difference here. A world where some of the people I love don’t really exist, but are really organic simulacrums of humanity is horrifying, and I avoid believing such a thing is the case in part because of my horror.
Just as I’d prefer to believe that brains can’t exist without minds, I’d like to believe that minds can exist without brains. Is that a double standard? Is it a silly idea, regardless? The whole question is made so much more difficult because I don’t understand, even slightly, how consciousness relates to the brain. I understand that they’re correlated; I’ve even tugged on some of the cables that run that correlation and watched what happened. It was interesting, to say the very least. The idea that the rich inner world of perception and emotion and knowing can be completely described by the outer world of neural networks and pharmacokinetics and information theory sounds nothing short of major league absurdity.
The best method I’ve heard for understanding consciousness as emergent from the brain is Scott’s analogy between particle interactions and communication. Everything in the universe interacts with everything else through the fundamental forces. Take two hydrogen atoms. They’re simple and familiar. They each have gravity, and there’s a cloud of electromagnetic activity around each nucleus. If they’re moving fast enough, the nuclear forces may be relevant, too. Atom A extends a gravitational influence to Atom B, and B returns A’s favor. As they approach, the electrostatic fields emitted by the protons and electrons apply attractive and repulsive forces to each other. It’s like they’re talking to each other, except this explanation goes a step further. They are talking to each other, the narrative goes, at the most basic level of communication.
There’s not a lot going on in the particle interactions dictated by the four sisters of gravity, electromagnetism, and strong and weak nuclear force, but nuance builds up quickly as the particles collect into more interesting things. Let’s talk about what’s going on in a human brain. There are about 100 billion neurons in the average brain, and each of them connects to about 7,000 synapses. At each synapse, there are large neurotransmitter molecules crossing the synaptic cleft, passing signals from one neuron to another. When those neurotransmitter molecules are uptaken by a neuron, ions interact with other ions, resulting in neurotransmitters being released in a new synapse. Sometimes the process starts when energy in the form of light, sound, pressure, heat transfer, dislocation, or chemical presence interacts with neurons clustered in sensory organs. Sometimes the process is interrupted for a very long time, and then proceeds anew, as in the case of memories. All of this is particles interacting with particles, cells talking to cells, a person communicating with the world around her.
Communion is communication, the theory goes, at ever-increasing levels of complexity. To exist as a conscious thing, as a soul, then, according to this line of thought is to be talking to a world of energy, physics, molecules, and chemistry around you. Talking to a human, verbally, tactilely, or intuitively, is different in scale from interatomic forces, but not in kind. It’s a nifty idea. I have a hard time countering it, but I find something incomplete about this theory.
When I listen to music, I know something of the physical reality of what’s going on. Some time ago, in a place I’ve never been, the musicians and producers digitally encoded the information needed to compose a song into media that my computer can read. I bought their album, uploaded the information to my computer, and commanded my computer to read it back to me. Encoded electrical power, rectified from the AC power generated by falling water in the Columbia River or a fissile nuclear pile in Wintersburg, Arizona, vibrates solenoid magnets crafted from Chinese neodymium in such a way as to produce a faithful apparition of the song Purity Ring composed in Montreal a year ago. Tiny hairs in my cochleae encode this acoustic energy into electrochemical information that is then processed by my brain into the sound of music that I enjoy. It’s in that last step, the “processing” in my brain, a garden of half-formed ideas, where the whole notion of mind-brain identity seems to collapse.
Whatever the signature in energy and blood flow in my brain when I hear music, the experience is a world ineffable in such terms. The concept of qualia, so roundly despised by mainstream contemporary philosophers, seems to be the only real description of what’s going on. Philosophers of mind have relentlessly attacked the concept of qualia on the grounds that it’s not fruitful. You can’t reduce qualia into components. The whole idea is that they’re irreducible, after all. Why then, accept a concept that you can’t learn from by breaking it down further? I suppose the answer is because it seems right and I can’t think of a better idea. Perhaps this is also an opportunity to point out that we as a culture are fetishizing reductionism to an unhealthy extent in this entire discussion.
Think of what the experience of music is. It’s sensation, raw and alive and meandering through emotion and perception and memory all the while. Music interacts with the mind like surf breaking on a beach, washing the soul with the misty sensation of a world beyond tingling with the inner vibrancy of sense itself. You can tell what I’m doing here. I’m egregiously mixing metaphors and the clarity of my writing has drained away. But what else can I do? I’m trying to talk about what it’s like to be alive. To be sensitive and in touch with the world, but utterly apart from it, because while you sense the world around you in a vivid and profound way, the world has only the vaguest dull notion of your existence. It’s so vague, awareness seems like the wrong description. My point is that there’s a whole new world that exists within each conscious mind. They’re all in touch with the outer world that I believe exists, but none of them are the same as that world, and they can’t be described purely in the language of the outer world. There’s a barrier here, and I don’t see a viable route to cross it.