Thursday, 20 June 2013

It's not "42;" here's what it is.

I've decided not to beat about the bush. In a few day's discussion with dear old (and brilliant) friends, I have found the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Up to a point. I reckon. And I need YOU to tell me where I'm going wrong, so please comment if you sniff out absurdity or inaccuracy. And this stuff really has to do with how we face death.

Firstly, the mind-body problem.  Is the mind more than the individual's brain, influenced by genetics and continually adapted and moulded by experience as it grows older? Is it infused with some universal force, some divine spark, some immortal stuff outside our skulls?

Rationalist might say no, it's all answerable from the chemistry and electrics of the the physical brain. Dualists, religious or otherwise, might say no, there must be more to it, "the scientists" can't point to a bit of brain and say "your sense of self, your sense of wonder and your acknowledgement of the vastness of the universe is in here." The mind is more than the brain.

 My friend J's answer was "Yes. Quite possibly both."

Then he talked about the unpredictability of complex systems. He pointed out that if you started to bring together, for the first time in  the history of the universe, one atom of hydrogen and two of oxygen, there is no way you could predict or estimate, the nature of water, that wonderfully complex substance all around and inside us. 

Water, he said, is an emergent property of one atom of hydrogen and two of oxygen. It is more than could be comprehended by looking at hydrogen and oxygen separately.

If the mind is an emergent property of the human brain, then it is both only the brain and more than the brain - impossible to deduce from the chemical and electrical properties of the brain on their own.

There is no need for an either/or, dualist/rationlist single answer to the question.

Maybe we need a new way of thinking, of being, to live with these big questions. We move through the world, the world moves through us, and that dynamic relationship generates from the brain, an almost incredibly complex system, the unpredictable uniqueness of a human mind. It is and it isn't just the pasty stuff inside our skulls.

If you're still with me, is this giving you a headache? It did me, but it was worth it, I felt.


  1. Okay, I've got my head around it now. Makes perfectly good intuitive sense, and intuitive sense is good enough for me.

    Yes, the mind is greater than the sum of its microcircuitry, just as the universe is greater than the sum of the prats who seek to reduce it to a system.

    It's the vital element of unpredictability that gives me most hope!

  2. Aha! You spur me on, Charles. We surely need our intuition as well as our reason to reach a better accommodation with the world around us. Maybe intuition is exactly one of those emergent properties of the brain that we can never measure or locate - doesn't mean it doesn't exist, or that it's God whispering in my ear, or...

    I shall deal with "prats" forthwith....

  3. Well, I guess intuition is a synthesis of intelligence, experience and memory. But the product is greater than that.

  4. Exactly so, I think.

    H. 2O. Water??? How on earth did we get to this stuff?

    Intelligence. Experience. Memory. Intuition - wow. How on earth...