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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

I find myself to be in great awe of the power of the science of physics to explain the workings of this world; indeed, I stand convinced that every process conceivable, including reason and consciousness, will be penetrated by this omnipotent weapon of our mind in the very near time. Thus I ask, why would anybody (including you) in their right mind believe in the existence of anything non-material, such as soul?

Yours truly,
Andrew Polonsky
Kharkiv, Ukraine

Dear Andrew,

Your statement is unexpectedly revealing. Physics will explain even the mind, you say; then you tell us that physics is itself a product or activity of the mind. You also speak of people being in their right mind who will agree with you. Thus: The mind can see that the mind can explain the mind. Yet your conclusion is: Everything is physical, not mental! A curious tale, is it not?

Andrew replies: I will be more precise. I do not deny a role for the mental in the scheme of things; I only state that thought and will are entirely material in nature. My major reason to believe so is that science has so far been able to account for a vast array of natural phenomena, and I see no reason to think that it will diminish in its competence. Even now we have results from neuroscience that offer explanations of many cognitive processes in purely computational terms; for example, a belief is a statement that is encoded by the neural machinery of our brains.

Socrates replies: I’ve been gone these two millennia and more and am still hearing the same kind of explanation I heard from Anaxagoras! But, look, I will not repeat the arguments I made to Cebes just before my supposed demise. Let me put a question to you: In what sense can an entity or an event in the brain be a belief? A belief is an act of holding something to be true. How can a brain event hold that something is true? You are speaking literal nonsense, as if you were to say that a color barks, or that a dog is well-read. Indeed, it is doubly absurd for you to assert that you believe that your beliefs are just brain events.

Andrew replies: The neurally-encoded statement corresponding to a belief induces a representation of the state of the universe; the brain event is then true if and only if the statement is true, that is, the represented state is, in fact, the state of the universe. The representation is a very complex phenomenon. To explain it fully would require grounding sensations, knowledge, and even logic in atoms. I have found a truly wonderful reduction of these concepts. However, this article is too small to hold it.

Socrates replies: My dear latter-day Fermat, I will not trouble you to redeem your promissory note, for the details of your ‘proof’ do not concern me. Their essential logic remains suspect. No matter how cleverly you concoct your representation in the brain, it is still no more a belief than is the perfect image of a tree reflected in a pond. Hence the brain is not a mind, no more than is the pond. But I doubt that I shall convince you of that in this short space either, so let me take another tack, since I am more interested in the soul than in the mind anyway. It seems to me that your scheme of things perforce reduces all values to subjective notions. So, for example, if you think that something is good, you could only mean that you like it. For if reality consisted exclusively of atoms, what external criterion or objective fact could there be to validate your judgment?

Andrew replies: Certainly belief involves a much more sophisticated kind of representation than the reflection in the water, but in the end everything about it will prove to be physical in nature. As for value: I propose that objective goodness lies in the contribution that something makes to the complexity of the universe. Ultimately I would have to spell out exactly what I mean by complexity, but I have in mind in particular human cognition, which is much more complex than the mental life of rabbits or, for that matter, the life of a star; but I also see no reason to suppose that humans instantiate the most sophisticated processes that could potentially exist. Therefore, stars matter only insofar as they help to generate ever more complex beings, as by producing higher elements and fueling evolution; and it is better to promote human welfare than bunny welfare, yet we ourselves could in turn be expendable in the cause of the superbrains.

Socrates replies: From the very start of our discussion you have shown an admirable enthusiasm of mind and for mind. But I fear that your enthusiasm has brought you unwittingly to your last hypothesis, for having equated mind with brain and brain with complexity, you now conclude that complexity is the highest good. But this is implausible on its face. While intellect is certainly a good, prized by myself to be sure, it also seems unquestionable that a saint is more likely to partake of goodness than a genius. Your infatuation with the brain ignores the heart (so to speak). Now, for all I know, a good-hearted soul may be even more complex than a brilliant mind. But I see nothing necessary in such an equation, and so to pin all of your hopes on complexity seems misguided, and dictated mainly by the artificial constraint to provide a physical analysis. Ultimately, then, your materialist reduction of values fails for the same reason that your (and Anaxagoras’) materialist reduction of mind does: You mistake an incarnation for the thing itself.

Yours as ever,


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