What Are You Besides Your Body?

Let’s ask the question: What am I? Not ‘Who am I?,’ because asking ‘Who am I?’ would already presume the presence of some entity whose nature is being questioned. Just what am I. Am I my body? No, that’s my body…again the presence of an entity is presumed to which my body would be assigned. Because what is this ‘my’ in my body? What makes my body ‘my’ body and your body ‘your’ body? What makes ‘you’ you and ‘me’ me? Are there even such things as ‘you’ and ‘me’? Or all we all part of a bigger whole; a continuum of nature in which no discrete entities exist?

When I’m referring to ‘me’, I’m not referring to what I have. And that includes my body. I think I am referring to my consciousness. But then again: what is this ‘my’ in ‘my consciousness’? What makes my consciousness mine and your consciousness yours? Assuming that you have a consciousness of course…I don’t know. There has to be something ‘my’ consciousness would have to be ascribed to in order to make it different from ‘your’ consciousness. My body maybe…and now we’re back at where we started.

It appears like we are just too stupid to come to understand what the ‘I’ in ‘What am I?’ is. Our tiny little brains just cannot handle the question. But, instead of a big read ‘ERROR’ appearing in the middle of our minds, the mind desperately tries to come up with an answer. Anything. It doesn’t manner how unverifiable or implausible it is. Desperately it tries to find something that makes ‘me’ me and ‘you’ you. But over and over again it returns home disappointed…not even knowing where or what this home is.

How does the ‘who’ in ‘who am I?’ differ from the ‘what’ in ‘what am I?’ Do they even differ? Because if it not, determinism might be unavoidable. If there is nothing in us that contributes at least a little value to the collective of cells making up our bodies, then we have to conclude that we are the collective of cells making up our bodies. But then free will would be nothing more than an illusion. Or it must be something that is formed in some inconceivable manner by the gigantically complex network of cells we call our bodies.

But let me ask you: what if free will would merely be an illusion? Would you care? Would your life become any different from what it is now? You could still do anything you want to do. The only difference is that what you ‘want’ to do would be programmed into your genetic structure. ‘You’ would merely be a witness overlooking the execution of this protocol.

Do you believe in consciousness? And if so, what do you believe it is? And would you mind if your consciousness would be like a fart; nothing but a by-product of your body?

Mr. Nobody: A True Philosophical Journey

mr_nobodyI have just seen the movie ‘Mr. Nobody’, and I recommend anyone who is interested in philosophy to go see this movie. It’s by far the most philosophical and mind-boggling movie I have ever seen. The movie shows, among other things, the lack of control we have over the course of our lives. Each and every moment in life you make decisions that make you go one way or another, and this string of decisions is – in fact – what we call our lives. The movie also portrays a rather deterministic view on life. The butterfly effect, as explicated in the movie, is the prime example of this; even the smallest change in the course of history can make our lives turn out completely different from what it would have been without the change.

Each movie can be interpreted in multiple ways, and that surely goes for Mr. Nobody. Nonetheless, I believe that from a philosophical point of view there is at least one issue that is very prominent, and that is the struggle between free will on the one hand and determinism on the other.

What will follow might be hard to grasp for those who have not seen the movie yet. Therefore I assume that, by this point, you have seen the movie. At first sight, Mr. Nobody is all about choices. That is: what will happen in Nemo’s life given that he has made a certain choice (e.g., to either jump on the train or not). The fact that there is this possibility of at least two different worlds Nemo could live in (i.e., the one with his mother and the one with his father) seems to imply that Nemo had (in retrospect) the possibility of choosing either of the options. And it is this element of what seems to be some form of autonomy (the ‘free will’ element) that returns frequently in the movie. Another instance of it can be found in his meeting with Elise on her doorstep. In one ‘life’ Nemo expresses his feelings for Elise, after which they get married and get children. In another life, Nemo does not express his feelings, and his potential future with Elise never occurs.

However, the true question I asked myself after watching this movie was: does Nemo in fact have the possibility to choose? Or are his ‘choices’ predetermined by whatever it is that occurs in his environment? An instance of the latter could be found in Nemo loosing Anna’s number because the paper he wrote her number on becomes wet (and therefore unreadable). In other words, these circumstances seem to force (or at least push) Nemo in the direction of a life without Anna; a circumstance that ultimately results from an unemployed Brazilian boiling an egg, which is another instance of the butterfly effect. So although it might appear that Nemo has the opportunity to make choices, it might in fact be that ‘the world’ (as in the environment he is living in) has already made this choice for him.

The struggle between the apparent existence of free will and the ‘true’ deterministic nature of the world is just one among many philosophical issues raised by this movie. Another is that of the arrow of time: the fact that we cannot alter the past but can influence the future. It is this aspect of time (the fact that it moves in one direction only) that makes the free will versus determinism issue so difficult (if not impossible) to resolve. After all, if we could simply go back in time, and see whether we would have behaved in the same manner, irrespective of the non-occurrence of any circumstances, we might get a much better feel on the nature of free will. After all, if we would happen to act more or less the same, irrespective of the circumstances we would be put into, we would appear to have something resembling free-will. If not, determinism might be the more realistic option.

Nonetheless, this is a very interesting movie whom those interested in philosophy will surely enjoy. And to those who have seen it I ask: what did you think of it?

Getting Addicted to Cigarettes…on Purpose

This might be one the stupidest articles you’ve ever read. My apologies for that.

Four months ago, I decided to start smoking. Why? I don’t know. Probably a combination of factors: I was fascinated by the series Californication, in which the main character (Hank Moody) smokes. Although it is sad to admit, it might be that watching him smoke sparked my curiosity about why it is people grab to cigarettes. Also, I have always been wondering whether smoking is primarily a physiological addiction (an addiction of the body) or a psychological one (an addiction of the mind). I could never understand why less than 25 percent of those who want to quit smoking, actually manage to do so. I always thought: if you want to stop, then you can stop. I mean: if you want to stop travelling by car, you can just stop taking the car, right? So given these ‘rational’ considerations, I decided to take up the cigarette, and start my journey of addiction.

Now, four months later, I have decided to stop. My little ‘experiment’ has provided me with the information I was looking for. I experienced what it is that makes you want to light up a cigarette. And, what I can say, it is more of a psychological addiction than a physiological addiction. It is the feeling of allowing yourself a break from what it is that you are doing. Also, the habit of smoking a cigarette every morning during your ‘morning walk’ gives you a clear signal that the day took off; a feeling as if the referee blew his whistle and the match has started.

However, I must admit that there are also physiological factors that make you want to grab a cigarette. In case you drink coffee (which is more likely than that you smoke), you can compare it to that longing for a cup of coffee to give your the energy you need to get through the day. And, as with drinking coffee, the first cigarette/cup of coffee gives the relative biggest ‘boost’; the relative biggest satisfaction in calming down your longing for nicotine/caffeine.

I’m not sure whether I have become truly addicted to cigarettes. I can only tell how I feel, and that’s what I’ve described above. And – since I’ve been drinking (much) coffee for the last couple of years, and I can fairly say that I’m addicted to caffeine – I think my smoking adventure will have likewise effects. Probably, even though I ‘quitted’, I’ll keep (at least for a while) on having that same longing for cigarettes as I have for coffee. I wonder which impulses will be tougher to handle: the psychological or the physiological. I am curious, and a little anxious, to find out.

What do you think?

Free Will and Why Determinism Would Not Change a Thing

I want to take a look at what – at first sight – might seem to be a dichotomy between free will and determinism. I’ve written a couple of articles dealing with the question whether there actually is something that can reasonably be called ‘free will’, and – if so – what this might consist of. These are important questions, for if it turns out that there is no fee will – or that there’s nothing ‘free’ about our free will – then we are left with determinism, a position many people are uncomfortable with. I want to look at what the implications might be of assuming determinism to be true, and in particular at what this assumption would imply for our experience of free will.

When we think of free will, we usually think of a certain autonomous power, residing within our minds, that is capable of initiating (our) actions. Whether it is picking up a teacup or stroking a dog, if we want to perform an action, we seem to be able to decide (consciously or unconsciously ) to execute this action. Now, let’s ask ourselves: how would this picture change if it turned out that we are not fully autonomous in deciding to pick up the teacup or stroking the dog? What if it turned out that our brains are just responding ‘automatically’ (that is, by triggering evolutionary developed neural networks) to the stimuli received from our environments? What if – in case of you picking up the teacup – the stimuli of (1) you being in the living room and (2) it being cold, trigger your neurons into making you believe you want to pick up the teacup and making you in fact pick up the teacup? Note the ‘what if’ in the former sentence, because theoretically it is possible that this is how we come to ‘decide’ on what actions to perform; just by means of nerve cells responding to external stimuli.

The truth of the matter is that we don’t know – and we might never know – whether this is the way our actions come about. It might indeed be that our actions – and thus our decisions – are fully deterministic in nature. However, it wouldn’t make a difference if this would be the case: not as long as we keep on having the perception of having a free will. Even though we might come deterministically to the actions we perform, we still experience the sense of free will. And this experience will not change, not even if we’d come to know that our actions come about fully deterministically.

Because think about it: what if it would turn out that you – who considers him- or herself to be a creative person – depend fully upon the aforementioned neural networks and stimuli for coming to your ‘creative’ ideas? Although you believe you came up with the ideas ‘all by yourself’, fully autonomous and purely free, it turns out that your ideas are a logical result of the environment you’re in and the configuration of your neural networks.

At first you might feel a little hurt in your ego, but when you start thinking about it, you quickly come to realize that this observation doesn’t change a thing. After all, your experience of having a free will is exactly the same as it was before – when you truly believed to have free will. You can still do anything you want to; you’ve merely come to know where this “want to” finds its origin. You have come to know that you don’t have a free will; but you still experience having a free will. And since experience is all we have, nothing has practically changed.

But what do you think?

What is the Value of Beauty?

Beauty is ‘a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction.’ Okay: now we know the definition of ‘beauty’; but what exactly is beauty? Let’s zoom in on the human part of beauty: why are some persons more beautiful than others? Why do men become ‘happy’ when they see Kate Upton, but not as much when they see Queen Beatrix (the former queen of The Netherlands)?

Studies have shown that when we recognize someone’s face as beautiful we are actually making a judgement about the health and vitality of that individual. We interpret facial symmetry (the similarity of the left and right half of a face) and a smooth skin to mean that a person has good genes and is – or has been – free from diseases. But what exactly we find beautiful differs per sex. For example: women attach less value to the looks of their partner than men do. But that begs the question: why do men attach so much value to the looks of a woman? And aren’t we men – by chasing the pretty girls – nothing more than simple puppets of our evolutionary determined instincts?

If you think about it, beauty is – next to its evolutionary function – a totally useless characteristic. The only way in which a woman’s beauty can be of value is in the seduction of ‘primitive’ – or at least superficial – men. Well, that’s not completely true; beauty is not totally irrelevant. For example: if a man sees a woman – of if a women sees a man – that is very fat, it might be a good idea to stay away from this person. You don’t want to waste your food – or your fertility – on that one, do you? And being so fat might not be very healthy. And we don’t want an ill partner, do we? But now we are back again at beauty’s evolutionary value

Beauty might be the single most overrated characteristic a person can have – next to cynicism, which is the most easy characteristic to have. Beauty is either present or it is not: you’ve either got it, or you don’t. Just like you can be tall or short, black or white, handicapped or ‘okay’, you can be beautiful or less beautiful (ugly). But even though it is fully determined by nature, we men still go crazy when we see a beautiful woman. A woman’s beauty alone can be sufficient reason for men to chase her. A phrase often heard is: ‘She’s stupid? So what? She’s beautiful, right?’ But the real question is: who in this example is really the stupid one? The one being chased, or the one chasing? If you value someone for her looks, aren’t you just better of taking a picture and hanging it above your bed? Not only will a picture last longer, but the beauty depicted on the picture will last longer too: beauty, after all, has the tendency to stay only until gravity shows it face. Intelligence, wisdom en experience, on the other hand, come with age.

So: what to do? Should we listen to our primal instincts and perceive beauty as it is dictated to us by nature? Or shall we take control of whoever we find beautiful? Are our bodies leading the way; the happy feelings we get when we see someone beautiful? Or do we listen to our minds telling us that an asymmetrical face doesn’t imply Down syndrome? The ever recurring philosophical dichotomy returns: the battle between the body and mind, between determinism and control.

Who do you think is going to win?

The Mind: What Are You?

What are you? Are you the body I am talking to? The collection of cells sitting in front of your computer, clustering for long enough in order for it to be given its own identity? Or are you something else? Are you the something that lies within your body? A something that is far less tangible or even intangible? Is the real you some kind of spirit? We feel like we are more than just a collection of cells, right? But can there actually be something like a spirit inside our bodies? I mean: how would this intangible spirit ever be able to control our bodily – and thus physical – motions? How can something intangible make something tangible move? Let’s take a look at that.

It’s a quest that is underway for hundreds of years now: the quest to find the true nature of the mind, the key to who we are. And by the mind I am not (only) referring to human intelligence, since the search for explaining intelligence is for the biggest part about totally different questions. These are questions like: what is intelligence? Does our intelligence lie – as a group of people called “the cognitivists” proclaim – in our ability to observe distinct symbols, transform these symbols into symbolic structures and extract meaning from these symbolic structures? Or resides our intelligence – as “the connectionists” claim – within the connections between the neurons in our brains, which makes intelligence a inherently distributed property?

These are interesting questions but none of them touch upon the most important issue: what exactly is the mind? Because it is in this mind of ours that the answer to who we are might be found. Our minds do not merely contain our ability to be intelligent. After all, computers might be considered to be intelligent as well; intelligent in the sense of being capable of detecting and manipulating symbolic structures. The mind seems to go further than this. The mind is about what, assuming that there is something like that, makes us different from inanimate objects. It questions the very nature of our existence. It questions what it is that makes you you and me me. It is about what makes you different from a tree or a mobile telephone. Besides the fact that we believe that we are different from a tree or a mobile telephone of course.

However, isn’t it just this ability of ours to reflect upon who we are and what we do that is what we consider to be our mind? The mind as some kind of power to reflect upon our animalistic urges and being capable of intervening if considered to be necessary? Maybe, but this still doesn’t seem to be much of an answer to the question of what our mind actually is. It merely describes in what manner our minds might differ from our animalistic urges.

Maybe we should take a look at how the mind might have come into existence. Let’s see what would happen if we would follow the biological route: it might be that, at some point in time while a fetus is in the womb of its mother, some kind of complexity threshold in the fetus’ brain is reached that triggers an ever recurring neural signal; some kind of signal that can – at least partially – be directed by an “autonomous” entity: the mind. But this observation immediately raises many new questions. Let’s say, for example, that we would indeed be able to control in some sense the neural activities within our brain; that we would be able to steer our neurons, and thereby our bodies that are connected to the neurons by strings of nerves. Then the question that comes to mind is: where does this autonomy of our minds lie? It must be somewhere inside of the neural activities, right? But then: where did these neural activities come from, given that they are “different” from the non-autonomous or non-mind like brain activities? And if these special neural activities driving our “free will”, or that part of our human brains that is responsible for our seemingly autonomous actions, need to be present in order for the brain to be able to send out its “free will” signals, then what is pushing these signals? New neurons again?

I haven’t found a satisfying answer yet. Therefore I ask you: what do you think? Do you think that there is some kind of spirit inside of us that is fundamentally separated from our human bodies, in the dualistic sense that Descartes proclaimed? Or do you think that the human mind is nothing more than a byproduct of our neural activities, because of which it is fully intertwined with our physical existence? And if the latter would be the case, how come that we seem to be able to control this physical existence of ours, without having some kind of autonomous spirit responsible for this? And if the first would be the case, how would it be possible for an intangible spirit to make a connection with the tangible life we, because of our bodies, are living? How is the connection made between these two seemingly incompatible worlds? That is philosophy, and that is interesting.

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The Trick of Affection

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Or – to put it less cryptically – affection is fundamentally subjective in nature. In other words: there’s no single true conception of what to (dis)like. Some people “just happen to like” red and other people “just happen to like” blue. And – in contrast to our “knowledge” of what does and what doesn’t exist in nature, and in contrast to our political conceptions – we have no conscious reasons for liking something. And note the word “conscious” in the previous sentence.

Because we might have reasons for liking a particular brand of whiskey more than other brands, or for liking to wear ragged jeans with stains all over them instead of regular and decent jeans. We might “believe” that our brand of whiskey “just tastes better” than the other whiskeys, and that the ragged jeans that we like “just looks better” than the other kind of jeans. And it is this “just” tasting better or “just” looking better that is reason enough for us to buy the product associated with this feeling instead of the other products. It’s after all not our fault that we just happen to like these products, right? It’s just the way it is; it’s our nature. And why wouldn’t we accept our true nature? That would be nothing but a kick in the face of our identity, wouldn’t it?

Can you imagine how easy it must be for a marketer to lure us into buying his product? He only has to make sure that we “just happen to like” his product. Because that alone would be sufficient for us to run to the shops and buy it. And do you know what the best part of all of this is? They can mold us any way they want to. They can keep on promoting their products all day long until that point of no return is reached at which the person “just happens to like the product”; until the person reaches the point that he no longer needs any excuses for buying the product. The point at which the person feels capable of legitimately buying the product he “likes” in order to feed his “affection”. And that’s it. Case closed.

We don’t know how our affections are being created; how they are molded and how they are manipulated. All we know are the end products flowing out of the realm of our unconsciousness and into the shining light of our consciousness. So even though our affections might be kneaded and sculpted, even though we might be indoctrinated and deceived, all of this takes place within our unconsciousness; all of this takes place off stage, a domain that we do not have access to. All we know is what comes out of our very own factory of unconscious longings. And at that point, the point at which the affection enters our conscious experience, we are lost. Because it is then that a little voice inside of our head tells us, “you must not resist who you are. Face it: you just happen to like this product. Go for it!”

And that’s how we came to like those ragged jeans of ours.

But what do you think?

How Free Is our Free Will?

Materialism – which is the dominant (philosophical) position held within the sciences – claims that the only entities that exist are matter and energy. This implies that there is no place for supernatural powers – or any other “powers” besides those of matter and energy. And since these are two “natural” components, they should in principle be able to be captured in terms of natural laws. But how could natural laws – that are capable of fully predicting the trajectory of natural phenomena given that certain initial conditions are known – ever be able to capture the free will of us human beings? Isn’t free will by definition something that is unable to be caught in terms of rigid laws? But, if that would be true, wouldn’t that imply that free will is something “unnatural” – something different from both matter and energy? In order to get an answer to this question, we should start by looking at what the “options” for bringing about our sense of free will are; starting out with the purely materialistic ones:

The first “option” is that our free will is something we human beings are “simply” born with. In other words, our free will has come about through nature. In other words: somewhere in our genetic structure is encoded our ability to act “autonomously”. However, given that our free will would be programmed by strings of DNA, wouldn’t follow from this that every part of what we consider to be our free will has in fact been codified – and thus determined – by nature? And wouldn’t this result in all of our actions – although they might seem to come about through free will – in fact being determined by nature? And given that this would be the case, would this imply that our future behaviors are already encapsulated somewhere within our genetic code? That our lives could be fully predicted if only we would know what situations we would come to be faced with in our future lives?

However, in order for us to be able to respond, we need something to respond to. And you could (reasonably) say that this “something” could be our environment, and that our environment is part of nature as well, and thus, in principle, fully predictable by means of natural laws. After all, if all the information for what it means to be a human being can be captured in terms of DNA,  why wouldn’t this also be possible for the rest of nature? And if this would indeed be possible, wouldn’t this mean that, by taking together (1) our predetermined genetic structures and (2) the environmental predetermined structures, our free will would be fully predictable, determined and – therefore – nonexistent?

You might believe that this story is incomplete; that there’s some “entity” missing. Materialism holds that – next to matter (which we’ve looked at above) –  everything that is is energy. That would imply that, given that we’ve just established that it is unlikely for our “freely” free will to be encoded in our materialistic genetic structure, energy must be the factor responsible for our “free will”. However, once again, we have to face the question of how it would be possible for us to control this energy given that our control wouldn’t be fully scripted and captured by our biological make-up. That is, how can energy be encapsulated within our material bodies in such a way that it would be able to non-deterministically steer our minds and bodies? And how did this seemingly “magical spark” come about?

Maybe we should set aside our current scientific lexicon and look for other, yet unknown, explanations of free-will. What about our free will being a consequence of a not-yet discovered particle? A particle that is so fundamental to the existence of our consciousness that the discovery of it would shed light on all sorts of deeply philosophical questions like: what is the mind? What is the connection between subjects and objects? Is there a mind-independent world? And if so, what would this world look like?

Or we might turn to a new mixture of natural forces and particles we already know exist, like electromagnetism. Or maybe there is some kind of parallel universe in which our consciousness resides. A universe that is fundamentally detached from our material bodies but that, via some yet inexplicable connection, is able to influence our bodily behaviors. The latter option seems to come very close to religion and its claim that there is a deity that has blessed our bodies with an immortal soul that might pass on to the afterlife whenever our bodies turn to dust.

One thing is for sure: we better come up with a damn good explanation, or else the idea of free will might turn out to be nothing more than a fairytale; an illusion that, although we are under the impression that we are in control of our lives, reduces us to nothing more than puppets. But, in case the latter would be true, would knowing this make our lives different in any way from the lives we’re living today? Wouldn’t we still feel like we are in charge of our lives, even if we’d know we aren’t? These are interesting questions longing for an answer.

What do you think?

The Mind or The Body: Who Is In Charge?

We are under the impression that we are in charge of our bodily actions. We believe that by steering our thoughts, we are somehow able to steer our bodies. If you are hungry and want to grab some food, ‘you‘ – the entity that is in charge of your mental processes – seem to somehow cause your body to move to the refrigerator and grab a sandwich. But how is that possible? How can something that is immaterial, which our thoughts seem to be, cause reactions in a physical world? Is there some kind of causal linkage between these two domains? Or are our thoughts nothing but a by-product of the physical existence of our bodies, and thus unable to – although it might appear to be otherwise – cause any physical activity?

You could say that there are two ‘kinds of explanation’ we could turn to in order to explain our sense of consciousness or our sense of control over our bodies. The first kind consists of explanations pointing to what might be the biological causes for our sense of consciousness. The other kind consists of explanations pointing to what might be religious or spiritual causes. I will not zoom in at the second kind of explanations because – frankly – I have very little to say about it; except for the fact that if there would be some kind of deity which has endowed us with our sense of consciousness, there would be little left to explain. But even if that would be the case, it is still highly unlikely that we will get to know this during our stay on this earth.

Within the biological spectrum of explanations, again a distinction can be made between what appear to be two incompatible ‘stories’. The difference between these stories does not so much reside within the causes they say are responsible for our sense of consciousness, but more in the consequences attached to each of these causes. The first branch of biological explanations claims that our human consciousness has come into existence at some point during the stay in our mother’s womb; at a certain point in the growth process of ours, our neurological development crossed a certain naturally determined threshold, thereby initiating what might be an ever recurring neurological signal; a signal that is coextensive with our mental processes (our thoughts, so to say) and that has a causal influence on our bodily behaviors. This explanation thus explicitly points to our thoughts as being causally related to our neurological activities. This explains why it seems to us that we are able to steer our bodily actions.

However, the question that immediately comes to mind after thinking about this explanation is: how could it ever be possible for something like the mind, that is involved with the ‘realm of thoughts’, to be connected to the physical world? That is: how can thoughts, that most of us consider to be immaterial, steer our bodies, that are material? This question remains yet unanswered.

The other type of biological explanation seems to do a better job at explaining the mysterious connection between our minds and bodies. This explanation claims that our consciousness is nothing more than an accidental byproduct of our neurological development, and has, subsequently, no causal influence on our bodily actions. That is: although we might have the impression that our thoughts are steering our bodies, in reality our physical bodies are, via our brains, steering our thoughts and therefore the content of our sense of consciousness (our thoughts). Our consciousness is no more than the activation of different regions of the brain, triggered by bodily actions in the physical world. Our mind is, as it is being called, ‘epiphenomenal’ on the body. And although this explanation might appear to be (very) counter-intuitive, it does a remarkably good job at clarifying the connection between our thoughts and actions.

Maybe one day science will be able to provide us with the final answer to the question of who is in charge: our minds or our bodies. Until that moment has come, we should stay ‘open-minded’ about what this relation might look like. No matter how counter-intuitive the explanations might be.

But what do you think?

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