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05/27/13

Permalink 10:42:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 175 words   English (US)
Categories: News

Special Advance Copies of My Manuscript Available

I wanted to let you guys know that special advance copies of my manuscript are available to people who want to be a part of this project. What I can offer is a 250 page electronic file (PDF) of the advanced volume, which is called “Discovering a More Enlightened Worldview”. The price is $10 (US), but under this arrangement there is a potential for you to make money by giving me useful comments, suggestions, and constructive criticism. One important goal is improving this manuscript to the point where it can be accepted as an academic thesis by professors, and another important goal is writing an introductory volume for general audiences. Whether you have a background in philosophy or not, you will probably still be able to help me towards one of these two goals.

This is a very ambitious project and it will probably only be successful as a collaborative effort. If you would like to be a part of the Enlightened Worldview Project team, contact Brandon at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com and there might be an opportunity for you.

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04/17/13

Permalink 10:49:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 734 words   English (US)
Categories: News

Elevate the Debate: Form a Local Politics and Philosophy Group

This website covers philosophical issues but I have also always been interested in political issues. Not only do I enjoy discussing both philosophical and political issues with people, but I also believe that such discussions are important to my life. I can go further and say that I also believe that probably most people should at least occasionally concern themselves with politics and philosophy because they will understand the world better and this will also help them make their lives better.

I read about important political and philosophical issues all the time, but I found that actually finding people to discuss these with is often quite difficult. It is probably inappropriate to get too deep into politics at work, and this is especially true for certain philosophical issues such as those that relate to religious concepts. Within many families, including mine, discussions of politics or religion get way to charged and toxic because there are always people with strong opinions who will want to express themselves and in the process hurt the feelings of other family members. And it is hard to find a group of friends who are interested in discussing politics and philosophy regularly. Sure there are lots of online discussion forums that one can go to, but this is not a substitute to actually meeting people in person and having discussions that cover issues in depth. This is just not possible online.

A few months ago, I was looking for a meeting group in my city that is oriented towards philosophy and politics, but I couldn't find what I was looking for. There were some college philosophy clubs, but these always meet during regular business hours on a weekday. I tried to find a group that regularly meets on weekends, but it looked like there wasn't one that existed in my city (Sacramento, California, USA) so I took the initiative and created it. I used the site Meetup.com to create the “Sacramento Politics and Philosophy Group” and wrote this for the group's mission statement:

This is a group for those in the Sacramento area who like to discuss politics and philosophy. We have all had different experiences in life, but we always find that political issues are very relevant to our lives and we want to discuss these issues with others. These days, political discussions are sometimes constructive, but unfortunately they often become hostile when people with differing views are in the same room. It is important for us all to hear views other than our own from time to time, and there has to be a way to have honest, thoughtful discussions on issues important to our lives while keeping the discussion calm and polite. In this discussion group, we try to avoid being overly biased when presenting opinions and we will also work to avoid use of fallacies in making points. We expect that there will be differences of opinion, but as long as we keep a philosophical mindset these discussions should not descend into hostility. Many of us also like to discuss philosophical topics and we will have time for this as well and we will probably find that most philosophical concepts have real-world applications, including political. So this discussion group will hover between these two subjects, and we might even at times focus on other subjects as well.

The group has been going good with regular weekly meetings and enough people in attendence to have good discussions. I have met some very smart and interesting people and I enjoy hearing their views and expressing my own views and being challenged every time we meet. These meetings have covered many “hot button” issues but have pretty much always remained civil.

Since this group has been a success so far, I am recommending people in other cities to start their own politics and philosophy meeting groups. There are already such groups in many cities, but I know that this is quite limited at the moment. I think this is a good idea and I recommend that others try it in your area. See if you can get a few people together to talk about the political issues of the day and also about abstract philosophical concepts such as morality and religion. It should be possible to discuss any issues with honesty and civility. I believe that we can grow as people through these discussions and our society benefits greatly.

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03/12/13

Permalink 11:30:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1464 words   English (US)
Categories: The Mind

How is Knowledge of Qualia Possible?

This post continues the series on consciousness and qualia. In an earlier post I concluded that the experience of phenomenal consciousness includes qualia, which are not reducible to anything physical/material. In my last post I gave a partial solution to one of the main aspects of the so-called “hard problem of consciousness”, which is what makes qualia possible and how this relates to the physical body, including the brain.

Both John Searle and David Chalmers are proponents of the idea of qualia. They both appear to be certain that qualia are real and that because of this zombies are a logical possibility. Both appear to be certain that they are not themselves zombies. This leads to what Chalmers calls the paradox of qualia judgment: If one is certain that they are not a zombie, and yet one’s zombie twin would in theory be physically identical to them, how then can one know about their own phenomenal consciousness while the zombie does not, since this knowledge is a physical brain state? And if one believes, for the sake of making the zombie twin completely physically identical to one’s self, that the zombie would also insist that it has phenomenal consciousness even though it does not, then how can one be epistemically justified to believe they indeed have phenomenal consciousness?

Chalmers believes that his zombie twin would also be theorizing about phenomenal consciousness just the same as himself even though it has no experience of this. He says that he is justified in concluding that he is not a zombie because he has conscious experience. “From the first-person point of view, my zombie twin and I are very different: I have experiences, and he does not. Because of this, I have evidence for my belief where he does not. Despite the fact that he says the same things I do, I know that I am not him…because of my direct first-person acquaintance with my experiences.”

The only way that Chalmers could be justified in saying this is if there were properties of phenomenal consciousness that he could discern from introspection. It seems that he could not actually be justified in his conclusion unless he were perceiving some sort of sense data that directly indicate that they have certain properties – properties that cannot be reconciled with the material substance that must also exist. This makes the zombie twin thought experiment problematic because in a situation where a zombie does not have the experience of qualia it is difficult to imagine how this zombie could also have this sense data that indicates certain nonphysical properties. The most reasonable conclusion, given the assumption that someone could be justified in saying that they experience nonphysical qualia, is that this person is making this judgment partially on the basis of unique sense data that any zombie could not have access to. Otherwise, the zombie actually would experience qualia and therefore would not be a zombie after all. So in this case a zombie twin could be similar to one's self in every way except for the sense data that causes one to be justified in their beliefs regarding the properties of qualia.

Epistemic justification is only one requirement for knowledge. Another requirement for a belief to be considered knowledge is that a belief must ultimately be caused by the thing that the belief refers to. This means that in order for one to actually have knowledge of qualia, there must be a genuine causal chain from the actual instances of qualia to the belief that one has about the qualia. This is very problematic because it has already been concluded that qualia must be nonphysical. Despite this, for one to have knowledge of them, they must have a causal effect on the physical world because one's beliefs are a part of their physical brain. Getting back to Chalmers' insistence that he has knowledge of a nonphysical aspect of his consciousness, it is clear that it is his brain that believes in this and his physical body that reports on this beliefs to others. If he does indeed have knowledge that there is more to his consciousness than that which can be reduced to the physical, then this can only be possible if his brain had another sense of some sort, distinct from the traditional five and any others that can be studied scientifically, and through which he can understand more about his experience than what is physically possible. The brain, being purely physical, does not have the ability to have a nonphysical experience, but there might be some mechanism through which it can understand the distinction between its own physical sense data and a qualitatively different nonphysical experience.

Chalmers concedes that qualia is likely an epiphenomenon, which means that it is caused by the physical world but that this causation is only one way because the physical world appears to be causally closed. But if qualia were epiphenomenal, they could not then have any causal effect on the physical world. Since an epiphenomenon can only have a one-way causal relation by definition, it is not logically possible for any instance of qualia to be an epiphenomenon and also for its existence to have any effect on the someone's brain and therefore a person could never actually have knowledge that qualia exist. Since Chalmers insists that he has knowledge of the nonphysical aspect of consciousness including many instances of qualia because of his own experiences, this means that qualia cannot merely be epiphenomenal and instead there must be some effect on the physical brain when qualia occurs.

Since it has been concluded that qualia exist as the nonphysical aspect of experience, there must be a way for the physical brain to know about their existence. The most reasonable solution to the Knowledge of Qualia Problem is as follows: 1) sense data is picked up by the bodily organs, such as the eyes and ears, and causes all of the brain events associated with perception. 2) There is then a nonphysical experience that is somehow caused by this, which are qualia. 3) The brain then uses a sense that is distinct from the traditional five senses and any other senses that can be studied scientifically to come to know certain properties of the qualia that were just experienced. 4) The brain discerns that the properties of the qualia are ontologically distinct from material substance, which it came to know about through other means. 5) With this knowledge, the brain is able to report on it. This solution to the Knowledge of Qualia Problem is called interactionism because it involves bidirectional interaction between the physical and the nonphysical.

Interactionism is not completely consistent with Chalmers’ theory because the zombie twin would not be able to report on any nonphysical experience because no such thing happens from the point of view of a zombie. Therefore, a zombie cannot be 100% physically identical to a body that has phenomenal consciousness. The two can be almost completely identical, but one will have to acknowledge that there must be a single exception in that the latter would have to have a special sense with which it gains more information about experience than what is physically possible.

Searle has a different solution to the epiphenomenon problem in which he argues that although qualia cannot be ontologically reduced to the physical body that they can be causally reduced to physical interactions. Searle argues that all of the causal relations between one's qualitative experience and the physical interactions within one's brain are the same thing and that therefore no epiphenomenon occurs. To elaborate, there are regular physical interactions going on within the brain and the qualitative experience, according to Searle, is a part of those.

Searle's answer to the Epiphenomenon Problem, however, is internally inconsistent. Searle would agree with the following points 1) Qualia are ontologically distinct from the material stuff that the brain is made of. 2) There are are a lot of physical interactions going on within the brain. 3) When these brain events occur, such as when one sees something, hears something, feels pain, etc., there are instances of qualia that are caused to exist that are not the same thing as any particle of matter that is a part of the brain nor any collection of such particles. If qualia are ontologically distinct from the physical body but are caused to exist by interactions in the physical body, then it would be inconsistent to say that the physical body is causally reduced. Also, Searle's theory of biological naturalism is not immune to the paradox of qualia judgment and thus cannot solve the Knowledge of Qualia Problem without concluding that qualia somehow have a causal effect on the brain so that one can know about their existence and argue that they are ontologically distinct, as Searle does.

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02/19/13

Permalink 11:38:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1960 words   English (US)
Categories: The Mind

Phenomenal Consciousness and the Cause of Qualia

In my previous post I wrote about consciousness, specifically the beliefs that people commonly have about consciousness and my own personal findings that I have come to through introspection and reflection. I concluded that my experience of seeing, hearing, thinking, feeling, etc. always has some qualitative aspect (A.K.A. qualia) that is not reducible to anything physical/material, which means that I believe in what is known as phenomenal consciousness. It is part of the so-called “hard problem of consciousness” to figure out what makes qualia possible and how this relates to the physical body, including the brain.

When applying the concept of qualia to what is known from science, many difficulties arise. If one accepts that qualia are distinct from material substance and that therefore phenomenal consciousness is entirely distinct from any other form of consciousness, then this invites a host of difficult questions that are part of the hard problem of consciousness. Today I will consider what can be called the “Cause of Qualia Problem”: If phenomenal consciousness is qualitatively different from anything material, and therefore is not ontologically reducible to anything going on in the physical body, then how does one’s body causally affect the qualia that one experiences? What bodily states or events cause qualia to exist?

There have been numerous theories proposed regarding the Cause of Qualia Problem. Both John Searle and David Chalmers are in the camp of philosophers who believe that phenomenal consciousness is ontologically distinct from anything physical, but they have different ideas regarding the relation between the physical body and qualia. Searle advocates what he calls “biological naturalism”, in which conscious states are entirely caused by lower level neurobiological processes in the brain and are features of the brain system. Searle believes that conscious states cause qualia to exist.

Searle insists that his theory is not dualist, but he gives too strict of a definition of dualism. Since Searle has concluded that conscious states are not reducible to anything material, this makes his theory of biological naturalism a dualist theory. Note that a dualist theory can include more than just two categories of existence. At the least, a dualist theory has to include material substance and another category of existence that is, in practice at least, only knowable subjectively (with the potential for intersubjectivity to be formed). A dualist theory can include any number of ontologically distinct categories of material substance and other physical categories and also any number of ontologically distinct nonphysical categories of being.

Chalmers has a similar theory to Searle's for reconciling phenomenal consciousness with the physical world, which he calls “property dualism”. In this theory, conscious properties naturally supervene on the physical properties of the body, which is the same as saying that the physical properties of the body directly cause the properties of phenomenal consciousness. To expand on this, if property dualism is true then when a person sees something, what happens is that first the physical brain perceives the image and then this causes nonphysical qualia to exist. Chalmers also speculates that conscious properties might emerge any time a physical thing stores information about another physical thing, which can take the form of a body having information about what it sees and hears, or even a thermostat having information about the temperature of a room.

Searle's and Chalmers' dualist theories seem to provide partial theories regarding the cause of qualia. There are multiple theories that attempt to provide more detailed answers to this problem. A good place to start is to to analyze the nature of mental identity, which itself has multiple theories. Mental identity theories are those that try to answer the questions of what are mental events, mental states, and mental properties. Specifically, what is thought, perception, sensation, memory, emotion, will, and imagination? Just as there are multiple theories of mental identity, each of these theories can be extended to facilitate some form of dualism, which should provide possible answers to the Cause of Qualia Problem.

Token identity theory, which is the simplest and least generalizable of the mental identity theories, says that each mental event can be defined as a specific event within one's brain at a given time. This theory says a mental event cannot be generalized beyond the identification of any specific brain event within a specific person. So for any group of mental events that seem similar and are referred to using the same word like pain, thought, vision, etc., there is nothing universalizable across all instances of this so-called type of mental event. For example, when I have pain in different parts of my body at different times and another person also has pains at different places and at different times, there is supposedly nothing about all of these instances of pain that are similar, aside from the trivial fact that they are referred to with the same word. There might be something physically or mentally similar between any two instances of pain, but there are no essential properties that the word “pain” actually refers to. Each one simply stands on its own, despite the fact that we try to use the same word to refer to all of them.

Donald Davidson formulated a materialist version of this called anomalous monism. This is a monist theory because it holds that mental events are identical with physical events and that no nonphysical properties or categories exist. Anomalous dualism is similar to anomalous monism but adds a dualist element. This theory says that any time a mental event occurs, this causes a single instance of qualia to exist. An implication of anomalous dualism is that there is no law of nature through which qualia are caused to exist by certain types of brain events. It would seem, therefore, that each instance of qualia would end up being a supernatural occurrence.

Type identity theory says that mental events are more generally identified by the type of events in the brain. The idea behind this is that each type of mental event, such as pain, pleasure, memory, etc. have some type of brain event that is the same for all beings that have mental events. For example, if modern science has identified certain brain events, such as C-fiber firings, as being responsible for sensations of pain, then this type of C-fiber firings is exactly what one is referring to when they speak of pain.

The monist version of this theory, which identifies mental types with physical types and holds that no nonphysical properties or categories of being exist, is called type physicalism. Type identity theory can also be extended to facilitate dualism if one assumes that the brain events that identify mental events can also be what causes certain types of qualia to exist. This version of dualism, which I will call type parallelism, would then in turn hold that any time a C-fiber fires in one's brain that an associated type of qualia are caused to exist and the same is true for all other types of brain events. Unlike anomalous dualism, type parallelism can be explained in terms of hypothesized laws of nature and therefore is naturalizable.

Both anomalous dualism and type parallelism seem to be able to provide a plausible answer to the Cause of Qualia Problem, but they both have problems. As Saul Kripke has pointed out, it appears that there are many species of living creatures that feel pain and that have memories, but if type identity theory were true then in order for a species to have genuine mental events, it must have exactly the same type of brain events as humans do. This is unlikely to be the case, so the dualist extension of type identity theory might restrict qualia to humans alone or at least to animals that have very similar brain functions as humans.

Another theory, called functionalism, identifies mental events not by any specific physical implementation but by the function that is performed. For example, many animals seem to have the ability to feel pain, so the definition of pain can be generalized to describe what is going on functionally when a being is in pain. This can be something along the lines of “any internal sensory input that is intended to inform a being that its body is being damaged in some way”. This kind of knowledge is essential for most, if not all, living beings. Also, since computers are usually thought to have memory of their own, the definition of memory can also be generalized to describe what is going on functionally when either a living being or a computer has memory.

Like type and token identity theories, functionalism also has monist and dualist variations. Functional physicalism identifies mental events with the functions of systems that have a purely physical implementation and also denies that anything nonphysical exists. The theory of functionalism can also be extended to facilitate dualism if one assumes that the functional operations of a living being or a machine can cause certain types of qualia to exist. Under this theory, which can be called functional parallelism, if there are qualia associated with pain, then an instance of qualia would be caused to exist any time a human is in pain, any time an animal is in pain, and perhaps even any time a computer program realizes that the computer in which it resides has been damaged somehow. Functional dualism is not necessarily this all-inclusive, however. There may turn out to be some reasons to conclude that a physical being must have a certain package of mental functions in order for any qualia to exist, which might in turn imply that the operations of simple beings (perhaps including some or all animals), and simple computers do not cause qualia to exist and are thus not phenomenally conscious but are instead zombies.

In comparing the three partial solutions to the Cause of Qualia Problem that are listed here, it makes sense to first eliminate anomalous dualism because it is not naturalizable, while the two versions of parallelism are. Functional parallelism can apply more easily to diverse beings that seem to have similar features, so it makes sense to conclude that qualia are caused to exist by the functional features of beings, whatever they might be made of and however they go about implementing the necessary functional features. Despite this realization, there might still be reasons to conclude that some types of beings have qualia while some do not. Functional parallelism can either work in a way such that each physical thing that has a certain functional quality has a nonphysical counterpart, or else possibly this parallelism could actually be restricted to only include physical things that have a certain complex package of functional features. A further analysis will be necessary to figure out whether all animals and humans have phenomenal consciousness or whether humans alone do or whether even nonliving things such as computers, or perhaps even thermostats, do as well.

Before moving on, it is necessary to address a common criticism that it is supposedly impossible or inconceivable that anything physical could have a causal effect on anything nonphysical or vice versa. It is true that the conclusion provided here, that body states and events cause qualia to exist, ends up implying that there is a causal link between the physical and the nonphysical. This causal relation, however, is understood to be completely natural. Natural laws actually govern the behavior of both physical things and nonphysical things because they operate on all categories of being. It is certainly conceivable that a law of nature could be triggered by some physical state of affairs that has an effect on some nonphysical state of affairs or vice versa. If this happens, is not magical. It is just the way things are.

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01/23/13

Permalink 11:29:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1081 words   English (US)
Categories: The Mind

Consciousness: Common Beliefs and My Own Personal Findings

A couple months ago I wrote about the different understandings of the word “consciousness” and I also wrote a different post about the so-called “hard problem of consciousness”. I believe it is also interesting to look at the beliefs people commonly have regarding consciousness and also it is very important for us all to introspect on our own consciousness and from this try to understand our own nature.

Perhaps the most common belief regarding consciousness that is held by people throughout the world is of the so-called soul or spirit that supposedly inhabits the body and is the the essence of the self. Most people throughout the world follow one of the major world religions, each of which involves beliefs about the nature of the self. In Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and many other belief systems, it is believed that there is an aspect of the self, often called the soul, that is distinct from the physical body and which can survive the death of the body. A similar belief seems to exist in Buddhism as well, with the main difference that within this belief system, there are only nonphysical attributes of the self, which will inevitably change over time just as the body will inevitably die, and that there is no part of what can be called the self which endures over time. There are a multitude of beliefs within organized religion regarding the nature of the self, some involving a soul, some involving reincarnation, some only involving nonphysical attributes. Despite this, what seems to be common amongst nearly all of these is that it is believed that there is a nonphysical aspect of the self.

Another way of looking at common beliefs about consciousness is through the analysis of language. If we look closely at the way humans use language, we can see that there are innate metaphysical assumptions with regard to consciousness, the self, and other living beings. Stephen Pinker argued in his book The Stuff of Thought that there are subtleties in the way human language works that seems to imply that living things that appear to have conscious awareness also have existence as an autonomous entity. As an example, Pinker pointed out that it can be proper to say “he touched him on the ear” but not “he touched the library on the window” (p. 104). Note that it also seems strange to say something like “I touched the tree on the bark” but it seems fine to say “I touched the tree's bark”.

Sentences of the form “X touched Y on the Z” only work if Y is a conscious being and Z is a part of this being. Although sentences of that form seem to be semantically equivalent to those of the form “X touched Y's Z”, these two forms are different in that only the later has the quality of being syntactically correct regardless of whether Y is conscious or not. This is because a conscious being is assumed to be a whole entity that incorporates all of its parts, including its ear, etc. This contrasts with how people think of non-conscious things like buildings, which are assumed to be mere collections of things such as windows, walls, etc. While buildings can have things like windows, these are not integral parts of the building because it is not conscious and thus one cannot touch a building on its window in the same sense that you can touch a puppy on its nose.

In introspecting on the nature of my own conscious experience, I shall begin with the basic senses. I am experiencing sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. While the fact that I experience these basic senses is obvious and unremarkable, there is an important subtlety to my experience that is quite noteworthy. I have concluded that my experience of each of these senses comes in the form of qualia, but where I can also gain a deeper understanding beyond these qualia. My conscious experience consists of a stream of qualia, and this fits the definition of phenomenal consciousness (as explained in the prior post on the hard problem of consciousness). I can categorize the different types of qualia, including the different colors and the different sounds and the different tactile feelings and the different tastes and smells. Each of the different types of qualia have properties of their existence that are, unfortunately, impossible to put into words. One will have to actually experience each type of qualia in order to understand its properties.

After careful analysis, I have concluded that the qualia that I am experiencing only have the properties that I know from experience and nothing more. Qualia simply exist as nothing more or less than they are immediately given in experience. When I have an experience of seeing redness, there are qualia that only have the property of redness and nothing else. When I have an experience of hearing a loud, high pitched tone, there are qualia that only have these properties and nothing else. These qualia can be fully understood from immediate experience. They may be correlated with other things going on, but the qualia themselves are distinct from everything else.

Although I can only immediately experience qualia and I only know from immediate experience the properties of these qualia, my experiences in life provide me with overwhelming inductive and deductive evidence that there are noumenal objects whose existence I cannot deny. “Noumenal” is a word that is derived from Immanuel Kant's theory of noumenon, which is the thing-in-itself that is beyond the possibility of immediate perception. Kant argued that one cannot know the properties of the noumenon, but on this point he is wrong because I have been able to understand certain properties of noumenal objects from inductive and deductive reasoning. These are properties that are not given from immediate experience, such as the property of being extended in space. While I realize that I have an innate understanding of spacial dimensions, it does not immediately follow from my innate understanding of this concept which things have this property and which do not. It is clear to me that qualia do not have this property, but that there are noumenal objects that do. This means that qualia are not extended in space but that there are other objects that must exist that are extended in space. There must be a causal link between the qualia and the noumenal objects, but I will save this analysis for a future post.

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12/19/12

Permalink 08:27:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 917 words   English (US)
Categories: Freethinking Awakenings

Is Christmas about Jesus?

The traditional reason for the Christmas holiday is to celebrate the birth of Christ. It is true that some of the traditions surrounding this holiday probably have pagan origins that ultimately go back to civilizations before the advent of Christianity. It is also true that many people today celebrate Christmas as a more secular holiday that gives them an opportunity to share time with family, to admire decorations, and to exchange gifts, all the while staying away from religious observances.

While there are many reasons that people throughout the globe celebrate Christmas, the religious connotations of this “most wonderful time of the year” are still quite present in the 21st century in every country where this holiday is celebrated. Because of this, it is relevant to take a critical look at the relation between Christmas and religion. Specifically, who was Jesus Christ and why is he so special? Was he divine? Was he the Son of God?

Most of us know the basics of the story of Jesus of Nazareth as told in the Gospels, which Christians see as the most important part of the Bible. The Gospels tell of Jesus being born to a virgin in a manger and being visited by wise men who gave him valuable gifts. Jesus would later in life begin ministering to crowds of people and healing sick and performing other miracles such as walking on water. He was put on trial by the Roman authorities, and was convicted and executed. The Gospels tell of him rising from the dead and ascending into heaven. Other parts of the New Testament try to make the case that Jesus was the Son of God and is the lord and savior of all humanity.

It is easy to see how anyone who believes that what is written in the Bible is true would want to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. It is easy to see how this became one of the two main celebrations of the year among Christians, with the other being a celebration of Jesus' resurrection (Easter). The idea that we people are all saved from our sins is quite powerful. The idea that we owe our salvation to the acts of this man who lived long ago, whose very existence is of course dependent on his being born in the first place, is quite enough to warrant this merry celebration.

There is a problem, though, that might seem to take away from the joy that surrounds this holiday, and this is the fact that the stories of Jesus, as told in the Bible, do not make sense in our modern 21st century understanding of the world. There are all kinds of holes that a reasonably minded person should be able to see in these stories: virgins cannot become pregnant, the details surrounding Jesus' birth in Bethlehem seem to contradict reliable historical sources of events at this time and place, it is physically impossible for people to perform miracles such as healing the sick at will or walking on water, and it is unfortunately impossible for dead people to rise to life.

Most importantly, there is no single person in history who is the Son of God. I believe we are all God's creation, but nobody living now or in the past has any special connection to God (over and above everyone else). No single person was designated by God as the lord or savior of humanity. Jesus was in purely physical terms no more (or less) than any other human.

This being said, however, there is much wisdom in the sayings of Jesus, as written in the Gospels and there is significant value in hearing his words. Sayings such as “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted” and “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill” (Matthew 5:3-10) are inspirational to those who live in difficult times and have brightened the spirits of countless people for centuries. There are many other sayings attributed to Jesus that have positive value as well.

Now, Jesus was not perfect. The Bible also quotes him saying “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). I was once a Christian and I remember hearing many theories about what Jesus might have meant in saying this. The truth is that this statement is impossible to rationalize and that, unlike many of Jesus' other sayings, there is absolutely no value in taking it to heart. It is difficult for me to even conceive of a more depressing thing to say, to be honest. But this just shows that Jesus was imperfect, as we all are, and said something unwise that he may well have later regretted. It happens to us all.

So it is irrational to hang on every word of Jesus as reported in the Gospels or any other part of the Bible, but there is still much value in the wisdom of Jesus and we can all admire him as a great, yet flawed man. All great men and women are flawed, after all. Though there is no good reason, given our modern understanding of reality, to believe that Jesus was the savior of the world, we can still honor his life on Christmas, along with so many others who have strove to show how we can live a peaceful, joyous, and loving life.

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11/21/12

Permalink 11:07:00 am, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 418 words   English (US)
Categories: News

The Enlightened Worldview Project: Accomplishments and Future Goals

This blog has featured quite a few interesting postings over the past few months, including a series on modern phenomenology that many people enjoyed and also last month I wrapped up a pretty long series on language and meaning. I have also written about religion, consciousness, and knowledge formation. All of the posts I have written here come from my book, Seeking a More Enlightened Worldview.

While this book is not published, and will not be available anytime soon, if you read all of the content on this website, starting with the essay on the Main tab and all of the blog postings, then you will actually have a pretty good idea of what is in the book. The reason why this book is not close to publication is because I need to add detail and clarity in a lot of areas and I have a lot of research to do before I can get around to revisions and rewrites. This book covers several subjects and I need to have a detailed understanding of each of them. I also have to work full time as a software engineer so I don't have a huge amount of time to work on my book.

My guess is that both the academic version and the general audience version of the book will be available within 2-3 years. This might be a long wait, but if you are interested you can simply read what is already posted on this website and write to me with any questions or comments. My email address is brandon@enlightenedworldview.com.

Also, going forward I am only going to be writing new posts about every month. This is largely because I have pretty much completed writing short posts that explain some section of my book. I could get into more detail in just about any area, but a post on such a subject would be difficult for most people to understand. But like I said, you can email me with any questions if you find that any blog posting I wrote is not clear enough or detailed enough.

The Enlightened Worldview Project is supposed to be a collaborative effort, so if you are interested in contributing in some way please contact me. If you read the content of this site you will see how far this project has come. There is still much to do before the books can be published, and I am working hard to meet this goal. Are you interested in being a part of this project?

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11/08/12

Permalink 10:52:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1667 words   English (US)
Categories: The Mind

What is Consciousness?

In saying “Know thyself”, Socrates famously asserted the paramount importance of self knowledge. This may be one of the oldest and best known quotes in the history of philosophy, but a brief survey of contemporary philosophy seems to show that there is much confusion and uncertainty regarding the nature of the self. It is natural for people to ask questions such as “What am I?”, “What is the nature of my conscious experience?” and “What is my relationship to the rest of existence?” It is unfortunately far more common for people to ask questions such as these than it is for them to receive anything close to satisfactory answers.

Only conscious beings can seek to understand themselves, and thus an understanding of the nature of consciousness is essential to self knowledge. There are many different ideas of what consciousness is and how it relates to the material world. Anyone reading this is probably quite certain that they are conscious right now, but will probably have to admit that consciousness is a quite mysterious concept.

The word “consciousness” is used in a variety of ways and has many different meanings so it will be necessary to analyze the different understandings of this word. David Chalmers has provided an analysis of these different meanings:

For example, one sometimes says that a mental state is conscious when it is verbally reportable, or when it is internally accessible. Sometimes a system is said to be conscious of some information when it has the ability to react on the basis of that information, or, more strongly, when it attends to that information, or when it can integrate that information and exploit it in the sophisticated control of behaviour. We sometimes say that an action is conscious precisely when it is deliberate. Often, we say that an organism is conscious as another way of saying that it is awake. There is no real issue whether these phenomena can be explained scientifically. 1

Each of the different understandings of consciousness Chalmers mentioned deserves a more detailed analysis.

Perceptual Consciousness: Ability to Respond

A being whose mental states are, in Chalmers words, “verbally reportable or internally accessible” probably has this quality, which is a very basic form of conscious awareness. A being has this quality if it can perceive stimuli and respond vocally in a way that shows some degree of acknowledgment of the stimuli. Also, the ability to respond to stimuli with some form of bodily gestures is a related quality that Chalmers does not mention, which is a being's ability to respond with certain movements when stimulated in one of these ways. For example, if a being is touched somehow or hears something or is shown something and it is able to speak or gesture a sign that refers to this type of stimuli, then it has this quality.

Conscious Reasoning: Ability to Attend to, Integrate, and Exploit Information

This is a more complex form of conscious awareness in that it is similar to the ability to respond, but it is more specific in that a being only has this quality if it has some reasoning capacity to the point where it is able to understand the meaning of certain stimuli and demonstrate this though its reaction. For example, if a being is shown some words and is able to demonstrate understanding of what the sentence means, then it has this quality. On the other hand, if it can only speak the words but does not understand them, then it only has merely demonstrated perceptual consciousness.

Conscious Wakefulness versus Minimal Consciousness

The state of being awake is similar to perceptual consciousness. When a creature is asleep, it temporarily loses its perceptual consciousness but this does not mean that it loses all sense of what it means to be “conscious”. Although it is colloquially common for people to say that someone is “conscious” if they are awake and “unconscious” if they are asleep or otherwise incapacitated and generally unaware of their surroundings, this use is misleading. Of course, humans and most animals can be awake or asleep, and if they are asleep then they are less consciously aware of things, but even when asleep such beings still have a minimal level of conscious awareness. Humans and animals only completely lose all forms of conscious awareness when they die or perhaps in some cases if an individual suffers severe brain damage which results in a persistive vegetative state.

Introspective Consciousness: Heightened External Awareness and Self-Awareness

This is the most complex form of conscious awareness and it is easiest to explain by comparing it to more simple forms of conscious awareness. There are times when a person might appear to be fully awake, but their degree of consciousness is lower than it can be and the state of consciousness that they are in only allows them to perform routine tasks. It is not difficult, though, for someone in such a state to heighten their external awareness and self-awareness and then to be in a state that can be called heightened consciousness or introspective consciousness. This can happen when one is not actively paying attention to what they are doing or to what is going on around them for long periods of time but then suddenly “come to”, which results in them being in a higher state of consciousness where they are actively paying attention to their behavior and their surroundings. For example, probably most of us have driven for long distances, perhaps for several hours, without focusing attentively on the road but instead thinking about other things and letting our minds wander. If suddenly something happens that requires one to focus more attentively, such as an oncoming road hazard, then the brain quickly changes into a state in which it becomes more aware of what one is doing and what is going on externally. This state often comes with some degree of introspective and reflective capacity.

D. M. Armstrong has theorized that this form of consciousness becomes possible with an increase of organized communication amongst the different specialized areas of the brain. Armstrong believes that both heightened external awareness and introspection are correlated because they both become possible through the “integration of the [mental] states and activities, making them work together in the complex and sophisticated ways necessary to achieve complex and sophisticated ends” 2.

Phenomenal Consciousness: The First Person Experience of Consciousness

Each of the aforementioned brain states and processes are very complex and scientists have spent countless hours trying to form even a basic understanding of how these work inside the brain. Despite the apparent difficulty in understanding these phenomena, Chalmers calls the study of any of these as “the easy problem of consciousness” because they can all be studied scientifically. Although the brain is extremely complex, advancements in neurobiology and psychology have taken away a lot of the mysticism that previously surrounded the functioning of conscious beings. Scientific studies have made progress in understanding the brain processes associated with these forms of consciousness, including those that allow people to become consciously aware of their surroundings and those that allow people to deliberate over possible actions before making a conscious decision. Modern science is working towards what might eventually be a detailed and reliable understanding of how conscious awareness works, partially through advanced brain scans, partially through computer simulations, and also with the help of several other methods of study.

While modern science offers ways for us to better understand the different forms of conscious awareness, Chalmers argues that there is another sense of the word “consciousness” that is altogether distinct from those mentioned above: what it is like to be something, or the first person experience of consciousness. Chalmers calls this phenomenal consciousness and the study of this is what Chalmers calls “the hard problem of consciousness.” The argument is that even if one were to fully understand all forms of conscious awareness from a neurobiological standpoint, then there is still more that one knows from actually experiencing consciousness firsthand. Those who agree with this line of thinking have put forth arguments that one can only understand the redness of the color red or the sound of a trumpet or the feeling of a soft pillow through the firsthand experience of consciousness. Each of these supposedly falls under the category of the qualitative aspect of conscious experience, which is often called qualia.

According to the theory of phenomenal consciousness, there are qualia associated with every kind of experience, such as color, pain, sweet taste, passion, etc. The fact that conscious awareness appears to be understandable through modern science is what makes it “the easy problem”, and the fact that phenomenal consciousness seems, in principle, to be completely outside the realm of science is what makes it “the hard problem”. Each of the forms of conscious awareness listed above are actually very complex and thus conscious awareness is a difficult subject to approach. In light of this, the problems associated with this can hardly be called “easy”, but the fact that it is at least possible to study conscious awareness scientifically makes these problems seem easy compared to those associated with phenomenal consciousness.

The reason phenomenal consciousness cannot conceivably be studied scientifically is because it involves the study of things that can only be known subjectively but cannot be known objectively. One can only understand their own conscious experience firsthand and it will never be possible to experience someone else's consciousness. Because of this, there can never be a way of approaching phenomenal consciousness in a way that meets the definition of objectivity. It is, however, possible for different people to come to a shared understanding of the nature of phenomenal consciousness by introspecting and discussing their findings amongst each other, thus creating intersubjectivity on this topic. The best way to study matters that can be known intersubjectively but not objectively is the modern phenomenological method or MPhM, which was explained in a prior post.

1 John Heil, Philosophy of Mind ? A Guide and Anthology. p. 618

2 ||. p. 614

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10/31/12

Permalink 08:35:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 764 words   English (US)
Categories: Words and Meanings

Formulating a Phenomenological Theory of Language and Meaning

This post concludes the series on language and meaning that I have been blogging on in recent weeks. Along the way, I used the Modern Phenomenological Method (MPhM). This method involves several steps through which one can come to a reasonable and reliable phenomenological theory. The previous five posts collectively constitute step 5 of this method, which is where one formulates a transcendental theory. In short, a transcendental theory takes into account intersubjective data but brackets out scientific preconceptions about how things supposedly work. Today's post is devoted to step 6, which is where the transcendental theory previously formulated is merged with objective data to formulate a unified phenomenological theory that is consistent with the intersubjective data and with the findings of modern science.

At present, this post will only be able to provide a brief unified theory that is somewhat speculative and is lacking in details. This is mostly a placeholder for much more intensive research that will be necessary in order to formulate a more rigorous unified theory. The following is an approximation of how the findings from prior posts can be merged with what is known about the brain and the rest of the physical body from modern science:

Remember that the most important point made in this series is that the languages that we use to communicate ultimately derive their meaning from the ideas that we have in mind when we speak, write, or gesture to others. Another important point is that all ideas ultimately are constructed from conceptual atoms that are innate to the mind. Everything that was established in the prior posts is compatible with the objective findings that have come out of modern cognitive science, though not necessarily with every theory that has been advanced.

Each conceptual atom is a type of brain state or brain activity, which are instantiated as token brain states and events. The brain must be innately configured to cause certain types of thought based on certain types of internal and external stimuli. It makes sense that this process will usually involve very complex stimuli that result in very complex structures in active thoughts, which are in turn comprised of these conceptual atoms. These thoughts can then be stored into memory and retrieved later. Each atom can also have the effect of causing certain types of behavior in certain circumstances. There are probably relatively simple structures of these atoms that have certain types of effects on behavior that cannot be reduced. Whatever effect any atoms or simple structures have on behavior, it is reasonable to conclude that the structures in active thoughts are very complex and their effect on behavior (by extension the effect that the tokens that they are comprised of) will consequently be very complex as well.

Ideas originate in the brain as result of external stimuli, which might take the form of seeing or hearing uses of language. The brain then interprets this language and forms the ideas that the language seems to be conveying. When ideas have the result of causing certain types of behavior, this will often take the form of some type of communication, be it verbal, written, etc. It is important to understand, though, that in between any external stimuli and the behavior that eventually results, there will always be a lot of internal processing, which can take into account any memories or other concurrent thoughts.

This description barely scratches the surface of how modern cognitive science can be understood as compatible with a theory of mentalese along the lines of that which is presented in prior posts. There are numerous studies that have been published that could be incorporated here and should improve the quality of this conclusion. But even if every credible published study on cognitive science were taken into account, there would still be significant gaps in the relation between language and thought that only modern phenomenology can adequately fill. There might come a day when modern science can allow us to understand, to a high level of detail, the nature of thoughts, including how they are structured and how they affect the language that one speaks. Eventually, it might be possible to formulate a detailed theory of how the different structures within the brain correspond to the cognitive atoms that thoughts are constructed from. It might someday be possible, perhaps aided by advanced brain scan technology, to form a more objective understanding of the relationship between inter-human communicative languages and mentalese. But for now, the best understanding we can achieve in these areas is through a combination of modern cognitive science and modern phenomenology.

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10/24/12

Permalink 11:15:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 644 words   English (US)
Categories: Words and Meanings

Why Wittgenstein is Wrong about Language and Meaning

This post continues the series on language and meaning. In prior posts, I laid out the case that language has meaning based on the ideas that we have in mind when we communicate, and that this meaning is socially constructed but it also ultimately derives from conceptual atoms that are innate to the mind. Complex concepts are constructed in our minds through a system that can be understood as a language of thought that can be called “mentalese”

As was explained in an earlier post, Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the concept of a private language is incoherent. Wittgenstein came to this conclusion based on the understanding that a private language is one that is understandable to only one person and cannot conceivably be understood by anyone else. This definition, however, is inconsistent with what is known about mentalese. As was explained in an earlier post, it is not possible to have an objective understanding of other people's thoughts, but it is possible to formulate an intersubjective understanding. This task was partially done in the posts leading up to this one. So it is possible for mentalese to be understood by multiple people because we all have the same conceptual atoms and the same rules through which more complex concepts are constructed from these atoms.

Wittgenstein's thought experiment about the “beetles” in each person's box is without merit because it would be possible in this situation for the different people to discuss amongst themselves the properties of their “beetle” and from this to figure out if they are similar objects or not. If multiple people had similar contents in their respective boxes, then through communication they could formulate an intersubjective understanding of what a “beetle” is. Similarly, multiple people can discuss the properties of any sort of first person experience, including pain, happiness, etc. and from this they can form an intersubjective understanding of these experiences. People can also have a shared understanding of the atoms of thought and how they relate to the linguistic symbols with which we communicate.

This system of mentalese involves the possibility that a system of logic could be formulated that is a close approximation of how people actually think. Some have argued that there are paradoxes that seem to show that logic is fundamentally flawed. One such paradox, which can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher Eubulides of Miletus, is the so-called liar paradox, which is “this statement is false”. If that statement were false, then it would intuitively seem that it is true. Conversely, if the statement were true then it would intuitively seem that it is false. This paradox can be solved if one remembers that the meaning of all statements lies in the ideas that one has in mind when they say them. The mentalese that results when this statement is interpreted would have to include a token of the atom that refers to another thought, since this is how one is able to analyze language and meaning. As was explained in last week's post, however, thoughts cannot actually refer to themselves. You just can't think about the same thought that you are thinking. If that doesn't make sense, well then that kind of illustrates the point that a self-referring thought is impossible. As such, any statement that contains the phrase “this statement” or something of this sort is nothing more than a nonsense statement. It seems reasonable that all logical paradoxes should be solvable by analyzing the mentalese that results when one attempts to understand the statement.

So in conclusion Wittgenstein is wrong in his contention that a language of thought is impossible. It has taken quite a few posts to get to this point but there is still one more left. Next week I will try to bring together the theory of mentalese with some modern science about how the brain works.

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