Why consciousness must be electric

Nested hierarchies have been discussed adequately, one should think. So here is an alternative matter.

I would propose that consciousness must be electrical in nature, due to two crucial facts:

1. The information that becomes conscious is some of the information being carried by the action-potentials of the nerve cells. It is not any other kind of information, such as quantum states of molecules, it is simply the information that nerve cells are known to carry via action-potentials.

2. Electric fields are the only physical phenomenon in the brain that have both the ability to extend in space significantly beyond nerve conduction itself and to be able to change and interact exceedingly swiftly, just as we experience conscious changes occurring “instantly.”

There are many other issues involved, of course, however, the fact remains that the physical phenomena underlying consciousness must be able to account for how consciousness appears to have the kind of extension and interactivity that creates consciousness, as electric fields would seem to be able to do. And that physical phenomenon must be tied to the information being carried as nerve impulses, as the electric fields of the nervous system ineluctibly are.

There does not seem to be a realistic option of a different sort of phenomenon that can unify that information encoded in the nerves into a conscious whole, and to do so exceedingly swiftly and surely. Certainly quantum physics offers nothing beyond electric fields interacting that could magically account for consciousness, no matter how much hocus-pocus people try to coax out of quantum phenomena. In the end it can’t be strange loops or the “illusion of consciousness” either, as one has to explain the difference between the consciousness and the unconscious (I would propose that the amount of, and type of, interaction of electric fields is what is crucial).

A great many issues could be discussed, however it seems to me that beginning with the basics is appropriate. There really is only one good candidate for consciousness in the physics of the brain at all, which is the electric fields that are unquestionably a necessary part of nerve conduction in the first place. If consciousness simply is what it is to be like a highly structured and unified (always becoming unified) electric field from the inside, so to speak, then it is the one phenomenon that we know not just abstractly, but as reality itself.

337 thoughts on “Why consciousness must be electric

  1. CharlieM: The brain thinks therefore I am.

    Where else are you if not in your brain?

    The belief that a lump of grey and white matter can think leads to ‘quite vague and indefinite’ speculations.

    Agreed! As we see demonstrated in this thread.

    Speculations such as if we can built a complex enough system using lead piping it will suddenly be able to contemplate its own existence. Or electrical activity in some unspecified way allows matter to contemplate itself.

    Again, I ask: what else is there? What else but brain tissue and brain activity?

  2. CharlieM:

    Steiner is claiming that the materialist ‘believes that thinking takes place in the brain, much in the same way that digestion takes place in the animal organs’. And, as the brain is material, then, in order to be consistent, materialists must conclude that in the human, matter thinks about its own nature. So from this perspective matter does not decide to take up space or to reflect light, but it does decide to think about its own existence

    The first two sentences are pretty much correct. The third one is logically incoherent.

    Steiner is claiming that if the physicalist is correct, then the following sequence must occur, in the specified order:

    1. matter decides to think
    2. matter thinks

    What he fails to recognize is that deciding is a form of thinking. If thinking cannot occur until after a decision is made, then thinking can never get off the ground, because the decision itself is a thought. It’s simple logic.

    So I think we can agree that Steiner’s version of physicalism is hopeless. But Steiner’s version depends on the goofy assumption that thinking can’t occur until a prior decision to think occurs. How does Steiner justify that assumption? He doesn’t. He simply pulls it out of his ass, which in his case is an unusually productive orifice and the source for most of his thought. And he fails to notice that the assumption is logically incoherent, as I explained above.

    Perhaps you can do better, Charlie. If matter can reflect light or take up space without previously deciding to do so, why must it decide to think prior to thinking? And how do you resolve the logical inconsistency that I’ve pointed out, which Steiner failed to notice?

  3. keiths:

    CharlieM:

    You are saying that we should begin with something that you consider to be definite and concrete, which you consider matter to be.

    No. I’m simply criticizing Steiner’s notion of the soul as a “definite subject”, with matter relegated to the status of something “vague and indefinite”.

    You keep bringing up the soul. But just as the ‘I’ does not equate to matter, neither does it equate to soul.

    Attributing thinking to the soul is just as vague and indefinite as attributing it to matter.

  4. keiths: Sure, but that hardly means that the notion of matter is vague and indefinite. You’re making a category error. It’s like saying “The concept of a vacuum is useless and insubstantial; after all, vacua are nothing but empty space.”

    Steiner doesn’t say the notion of matter is vague and indefinite, he says the notion that matter can contemplate its own existence is vague and indefinite.

  5. keiths:
    Besides, Steiner claims to be familiar with Buddhist thought.Doesn’t he know how problematic the notion of the self is?

    It would be interesting to discuss this but I think it would take us too far off topic. I’d wager that you know very little about Steiner’s views on Buddhism.

  6. RodW:

    The only argument I can see that could be made now would be to assume that consciousness is not pattern but medium and show that this leads to problems and absurdities in contradiction to our observations.

    Yes, and one can come up with some suggestive thought experiments along those lines, though they certainly can’t be carried out using today’s technology.

    For example, imagine taking a living human brain in a normal, living person and replacing one single neuron with a behaviorally identical artificial neuron, implemented using a completely different underlying technology. The rest of the brain wouldn’t see a difference; the artificial neuron wouldn’t behave any differently from the one it replaced. The person would function as before.

    Now imagine repeating that process again and again until eventually, you’ve replaced every neuron in the original brain with an artificial counterpart. The new brain would behave exactly like the original. The person would express all the same thoughts, memories, hopes and desires, fears and disappointments. An external observer would not be able to tell that the neurons had all been replaced.

    It seems absurd to suggest that consciousness would vanish at some point during this process of gradual replacement, but if consciousness were highly medium-dependent, that would indeed have to be the case. The assumption of medium-dependence leads to a seeming absurdity.

    The rub, of course, is that even if we were able to carry out the experiment, there would be no way to tell whether consciousness did in fact vanish during the process. How can you tell, from the outside, whether there’s “anyone home” in there? Even now, we don’t know for sure that other people are conscious in the same way that we are. We argue for it by symmetry.

    At root, the question is this: Is consciousness just a particular kind of information processing? If yes, then there’s no reason to think that it’s medium dependent. If no, then the question becomes “What else is there, beyond information processing, that is essential to consciousness? And whatever that is, does it depend on the particular medium?”

  7. Alan Fox: Hey!

    I was the one pointing out the madness of reflecting on one’s (heh) cognitive powers and expecting that to get somewhere. Bottom-up won’t work on its own; top-down won’t work on its own, modelling won’t work on its own. But a shared approach, using all the tools available, may make progress. Of course thatdoesn’t apply to the immaterial. God only knows how that works.

    Hi Alan, I just picked up on your comment which interested me and was relevant to what I was discussing. In what way would you say that the brain contemplates its own existence?

  8. Charlie,

    You’re skirting the issue. Let me ask again:

    Perhaps you can do better, Charlie. If matter can reflect light or take up space without previously deciding to do so, why must it decide to think prior to thinking? And how do you resolve the logical inconsistency that I’ve pointed out, which Steiner failed to notice?

  9. Alan Fox: Where else are you if not in your brain?

    To ask where the ‘I’ exists is to assume that it is physical. All I will say is that the body allows the ‘I’ to be expressed. If it is anywhere it is in the whole body.

    Again, I ask: what else is there? What else but brain tissue and brain activity?

    There is much more, beginning with the cardiovascular system, the respiratory system, the bones, the muscles and all the other tissues and organs. The brain in isolation is an abstraction that does not exist in reality.

  10. CharlieM: In what way would you say that the brain contemplates its own existence?

    I don’t think that the idea that cognition is an attribute of the human brain is at all controversial. There’s plenty of evidence from various studies, observations and experiments that confirm this. It follows, for me, then that any kind of reflection, such as contemplating my/your/their existence is brain activity. Whether it’s fruitful on its own is another question. It’s certainly prolific, judging by the literature, religious and philosophical.

  11. keiths:
    CharlieM:

    The first two sentences are pretty much correct.The third one is logically incoherent.

    Steiner is claiming that if the physicalist is correct, then the following sequence must occur, in the specified order:

    1. matter decides to think
    2. matter thinks

    What he fails to recognize is that deciding is a form of thinking.If thinking cannot occur until after a decision is made, then thinking can never get off the ground, because the decision itself is a thought.It’s simple logic.

    So I think we can agree that Steiner’s version of physicalism is hopeless.But Steiner’s version depends on the goofy assumption that thinking can’t occur until a prior decision to think occurs.How does Steiner justify that assumption?He doesn’t.He simply pulls it out of his ass, which in his case is an unusually productive orifice and the source for most of his thought.And he fails to notice that the assumption is logically incoherent, as I explained above.

    Perhaps you can do better, Charlie.If matter can reflect light or take up space without previously deciding to do so, why must it decide to think prior to thinking?And how do you resolve the logical inconsistency that I’ve pointed out, which Steiner failed to notice?

    I don’t need to do better, what Steiner says is quite sufficient. You have decided to be very selective in your criticism. Steiner does not just ask, ‘How does matter think?’, he asks, ‘How does Matter come to think of its own nature?’

    Thinking is common to all the higher animals, but self-reflective contemplative thinking is a human trait. So Steiner is asking, how does matter (the human brain) come to contemplate its own nature? (decide to think).

    I take it you (or for the materialist, your material brain) has decided to think about this discussion we are having?

    By the way the videos about Barfield’s, “Saving the Appearances” are less than one hour in total and there are 5 of them.

  12. CharlieM: To ask where the ‘I’ exists is to assume that it is physical. All I will say is that the body allows the ‘I’ to be expressed. If it is anywhere it is in the whole body.

    I think we are at cross-purposes here. I don’t deny that considering the brain in isolation from the rest of the self and connection with the interior and exterior world would be a sterile approach. For instance, evidence from feral children (as far as it can be relied on) suggests that human development is stunted beyond repair without sufficient stimulus from the external world. But our cognitive abilities reside and take place in brain tissue. (Perhaps I can generalise a little and say nerve tissue. I tend to think of the retinal and optic nerves as part of the brain.)

  13. CharlieM: There is much more, beginning with the cardiovascular system, the respiratory system, the bones, the muscles and all the other tissues and organs. The brain in isolation is an abstraction that does not exist in reality.

    The brain cannot exist in isolation, no, I agree. But I repeat: cognition occurs in brain tissue.

  14. CharlieM:

    I don’t need to do better, what Steiner says is quite sufficient.

    You do need to do better. What Steiner says is incorrect, as I’ve explained. He’s making a very basic logic mistake.

    Do you deny that?

    I know you are devoted to the Dear Leader, but his mistake couldn’t be more obvious.

  15. Charlie,

    As an experiment, see if you can acknowledge Steiner’s mistake.

    Type “Steiner is wrong”, or “Steiner made a logical mistake”, or “Steiner’s assumption was unjustified”, and then click on ‘Post comment’.

    Does the very thought cause you anxiety?

    That’s how Scientologists feel when confronted with the mistakes of L. Ron Hubbard, whom you deride.

    Your pitiful devotion to Steiner is as irrational as their devotion to Hubbard.

    Think about that.

  16. keiths:
    petrushka,
    Why assume that “symbolic intelligence” would in any way depend on emulating chemistry?

    I assume that consciousness is the behavior of the brain. At the moment, I see no substitute stratum capable of supporting brain behavior. We can emulate reflexive behavior fairly well. We will probably have self driving cars pretty soon. They currently work pretty well on marked roads.

    But brains are vastly more energy efficient than emulations of brains. I doubt if technology will overcome this in my lifetime.

  17. petrushka: We will probably have self driving cars pretty soon.

    Truck drivers’ jobs may be at risk before too long.

    They currently work pretty well on marked roads.

    Puzzles me why there doesn’t seem to be more development directed to driverless trains. No steering needed.

  18. keiths:

    Why assume that “symbolic intelligence” would in any way depend on emulating chemistry?

    petrushka:

    I assume that consciousness is the behavior of the brain.

    Your claim was about “symbolic intelligence”, not consciousness:

    I have no “in principle” reason to rule out symbolic intelligence, but my gut feeling is that chemistry is faster than emulations of chemistry, and will remain so.

    So you’re making a couple of dubious assumptions:

    1) That symbolic intelligence can’t be demonstrated by anything other than a brain (or a brain emulation); and

    2) That to successfully emulate the intelligence of a brain requires emulating the chemistry of that brain.

    I don’t see why we should make either of those assumptions.

  19. KN,

    Apropos of “what is consciousness?”, this looks relevant: What if consciousness is not what drives the human mind?

    It’s certainly relevant, but I’m a bit annoyed that the authors are presenting it as if it were a novel idea of theirs. It’s actually quite mainstream among the cognoscenti. Nothing new.

    For example, they write:

    We suggest that our personal awareness does not create, cause or choose our beliefs, feelings or perceptions. Instead, the contents of consciousness are generated “behind the scenes” by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains. All this happens without any interference from our personal awareness, which sits passively in the passenger seat while these processes occur.

    To the average person that might be a revelation, but not to folks who are steeped in this stuff.

  20. keiths: RodW:

    The only argument I can see that could be made now would be to assume that consciousness is not pattern but medium and show that this leads to problems and absurdities in contradiction to our observations.

    Why would it have to be one or the other? But then I doubt that it’s a pattern as such, rather, certain kinds of dynamics. As such, it would be both medium and interactivity, depending in part on sensory patterns, in any case.

    Yes, and one can come up with some suggestive thought experiments along those lines, though they certainly can’t be carried out using today’s technology.

    For example, imagine taking a living human brain in a normal, living person and replacing one single neuron with a behaviorally identical artificial neuron, implemented using a completely different underlying technology.

    That wouldn’t prove anything about the importance of the medium. Not that it would necessarily be one medium and not another, but certainly the operation of voltage-gated channels is dependent upon electric activity, notably electric fields. Could be something else, like magnetism, at least theoretically, but to make something behaviorally identical would depend on a certain kind of medium, like extended fields.

    The rest of the brain wouldn’t see a difference; the artificial neuron wouldn’t behave any differently from the one it replaced. The person would function as before.

    This is what I don’t get about such thought experiments. They ignore the importance of what it means to be “behaviorally identical.”

    Now imagine repeating that process again and again until eventually, you’ve replaced every neuron in the original brain with an artificial counterpart. The new brain would behave exactly like the original. The person would express all the same thoughts, memories, hopes and desires, fears and disappointments. An external observer would not be able to tell that the neurons had all been replaced.

    That’s because they’re “behaviorally identical.” The thing is, that may mean that such neurons would have to be conscious when operating en masse, thanks to the interactions of (probably electric) fields.

    It seems absurd to suggest that consciousness would vanish at some point during this process of gradual replacement, but if consciousness were highly medium-dependent, that would indeed have to be the case.

    Why would it vanish “at some point”? Clearly it might fade out, the person just becoming less conscious all of the time. To be sure, I think if they’re “behaviorally identical” neurons, consciousness would remain, but I don’t see how the thought experiment establishes anything. If consciousness did fade, it would just be a matter of spectrum, where one moves from “quite conscious” to unconscious.

    The assumption of medium-dependence leads to a seeming absurdity.

    I think few would bother thinking of medium dependence as the issue

    The rub, of course, is that even if we were able to carry out the experiment, there would be no way to tell whether consciousness did in fact vanish during the process. How can you tell, from the outside, whether there’s “anyone home” in there? We don’t know for sure that other people are conscious in the same way that we are. We argue for it by symmetry.

    You’d need to know what consciousness is in order to know.

    At root, the question is this: Is consciousness just a particular kind of information processing? If yes, then there’s no reason to think that it’s medium dependent.

    If it’s a particular kind of information processing, maybe it’s medium dependent or maybe it’s not. It’s just a question of what’s “particular” about it.

    If no, then the question becomes “What else is there, beyond information processing, that is essential to consciousness? And whatever that is, does it depend on the particular medium?”

    Or might it depend not on the particular medium, but on a type of medium?

    I think it depends on the medium in the sense that consciousness seems to involve information in different neurons interacting together, which certain fields can do. How else would we have interconnected “conscious fields,” like the visual field? That’s all brain, likely due to being part of the conscious areas of the brain. We don’t make connected visual space in our technology, we use pixels, which are more or less fused together by the conscious brain.

    Glen Davidson

  21. Keiths, I did not assert either of those claims. What I think is true is that brains are the most energy efficient embodiment of intelligence. By many orders of magnitude. I think that is due to their substrate. I don’t know of any full emulation of biological neuron or networks.

    As for consciousness, I don’t think we know what it is or what it requires, so speculation is just speculation.

  22. Kantian Naturalist:
    Apropos of “what is consciousness?”, this looks relevant: What if consciousness is not what drives the human mind?

    But isn’t that kind of standard?

    The fact is that consciousness seems to have more use when coordinating activities is being learned. So one is more concentrating on what one is doing when practicing, say, pitching, and less on what one is doing (but just being aware of what affects the pitch) the more expert you become. It becomes “automatic,” less conscious of the activity itself. Which makes sense if consciousness is the result of interacting electric fields that tweak the timing of action-potentials.

    Anyway, though, the unconscious has long been obviously important, even though we tend to think that our conscious minds are what matter. Consciousness has its uses, but mostly it’s not all that clear what these are. However, the new seems to be of what we’re more conscious, and my sense of it is that coordination is probably what consciousness mostly does in a practical sense.

    Glen Davidson

  23. keiths: Yes, and one can come up with some suggestive thought experiments along those lines, though they certainly can’t be carried out using today’s technology

    I think your example works. To object to it one would have to make the claim that there is an incremental loss in consciousness with each neuron replacement. I do think there are degrees of consciousness but I don’t think this would lead to a loss. If Glen is correct ( see above) one might say that there would at least be a qualitative shift in the nature of the mind in question with each replacement- a gradual transformation.
    This whole discussion could lead to some great sci-fi and it relates to one of my favorite movies: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In the movie, the aliens claimed to be the person they duplicate but I’ve always assumed that being duplicated would an identical experience to dying. There would just be some doppleganger walking around after you die. But maybe the continuity of our experience is only an illusion and we die and are reborn ten times a second. Then memory would be the only thing that ties our consciousness together and the body snatchers would have a legitimate claim to be the person they duplicate.

  24. RodW: If Glen is correct ( see above) one might say that there would at least be a qualitative shift in the nature of the mind in question with each replacement- a gradual transformation.

    I didn’t really say that. If the neurons actually are behaviorally identical, I suspect that consciousness would pretty much continue as before.

    The question being, what would it take for the artificial neurons to be behaviorally identical?

    Glen Davidson

  25. Glen

    I didn’t really say that.

    Of course. I was just indicating that you had just added to the discussion

    If the neurons actually are behaviorally identical, I suspect that consciousness would pretty much continue as before.
    The question being, what would it take for the artificial neurons to be behaviorally identical?

    Wouldn’t you say that as long as the artificial neurons are electrical in nature consciousness would continue? Keiths comment didn’t really address your claim in the OP. In an earlier comment I suggested the medium is irrelevant and gave an extreme example of a brain composed to lead pipes filled with water.

  26. RodW: Wouldn’t you say that as long as the artificial neurons are electrical in nature consciousness would continue?

    Sure, at least if they’re operating according to voltage-gated channels, which is the only way I can imagine the artificial neurons being behaviorally identical with the “natural neurons.”

    Glen Davidson

  27. Glen:

    Why would it vanish “at some point”?

    Sorry — I worded that ambiguously. I didn’t mean to imply that there was a single point — the removal of a single neuron — that would take the brain from fully conscious to fully unconscious. That would be absurd.

    My point was that whatever your criterion for consciousness, it would be met with the original brain but not met when all the neurons had been replaced with their artificial counterparts (assuming, as we are here, that consciousness is medium-dependent). Thus it must have gone from conscious to unconscious along the way, regardless of whether that transition was sudden or gradual.

  28. GlenDavidson: I didn’t really say that. If the neurons actually are behaviorally identical, I suspect that consciousness would pretty much continue as before.

    I’d agree. The pattern is what counts, in whatever medium.

  29. Alan,

    Glen is saying that it’s the pattern of the electrical fields that matters, and that identical patterns in any non-electrical form would not be conscious.

  30. Puzzles me why there doesn’t seem to be more development directed to driverless trains. No steering needed.

    Maybe because it’s just one driver for quite a bit of cargo.

  31. CharlieM: You keep bringing up the soul. But just as the ‘I’ does not equate to matter, neither does it equate to soul.

    Of course not. It’s physical-chemical phenomena, not the matter alone. Lots of people mistake materialism for just matter, which is why the term was changed to physicalism, but people keep thinking of static, position-oblivious, matter regardless. That’s why it’s so hard for many to understand, for example, why information is material/physical. They think weight and such shit. They only think of the components, not of their relative positions and dynamics.

    CharlieM: Attributing thinking to the soul is just as vague and indefinite as attributing it to matter.

    I disagree. The soul is indefinite and vague, matter (rather physical/chemical phenomena) is right there for the taking. Of course, if you’re thinking position-oblivious, static matter, then I understand where your confusion comes from.

  32. Entropy:

    Puzzles me why there doesn’t seem to be more development directed to driverless trains. No steering needed.

    Maybe because it’s just one driver for quite a bit of cargo.

    Here’s what’s been puzzling me about train safety lately:

    In the recent Amtrak crash, the train was traveling 80 mph in a 30 mph zone. Seems like it should be fairly simple to design a system, based on GPS, say, that would monitor the locomotive’s location and set off an alarm if it were traveling too fast for the current section of track.

    In fact, I can hardly believe that such a system doesn’t already exist. Airplanes are full of similar systems. I’ll be very interested in reading the accident report when it comes out.

  33. RodW,

    Wouldn’t you say that as long as the artificial neurons are electrical in nature consciousness would continue? Keiths comment didn’t really address your claim in the OP.

    That’s right. I was focusing on the question of medium dependence.

  34. There was a train crash in 2013 in Santiago Di Compostela 150 fatalities. Why no override to driver’s failure to slow for a curve? Economics, I suspect.

    ETA oops 79 fatalities

  35. I did some Googling and found that there’s something called Positive Train Control (PTC) that would, among other things, prevent trains from exceeding speed limits.

    The NTSB has been recommending it for decades. Congress finally got around to passing legislation in 2008, but the implementation deadlines have lagged. PTC was installed, but not yet operational, on the section of track in Washington where the Amtrak derailment occurred.

  36. keiths:
    Alan,

    Glen is saying that it’s the pattern of the electrical fields that matters, and that identical patterns in any non-electrical form would not be conscious.

    I would note that this involves the “binding problem” of consciousness, which is basically the question of how consciousness becomes connected.

    It’s a well-known issue in consciousness.

    Glen Davidson

  37. Neil Rickert: Who knew that Elsevier were publishing humor?

    I still haven’t seen any predictions of your theory being confirmed by experiments… I don’t even know what your theory is all about… but neither do you… obviously….

  38. keiths,

    Charlie,

    You keep making the same fundamental error of logic.

    When a physicalist ascribes the power of thinking to matter, he is also ascribing the power of thinking to himself. Why? Because the physicalist regards himself as a material being, of course. Self and matter go together. To ascribe the power of thinking to oneself is to ascribe the power of thinking to matter.

    And I believe Stenier would agree that this is the physicalist/materialist’s position. Steiner is not saying that this position is false, he is saying that this cannot be the starting point of philosophical enquiry.

    keiths,
    To Steiner, they don’t go together. It has to be one or the other. Hence the words “instead of” in his quote:

    He [the physicalist] ascribes the power of thinking to matter instead of to himself.

    Steiner is here taking the same starting position as Descartes. Descartes starts his enquiry from a position of doubt about everything but his own self. Whether this self is mind or matter or both is not to be decided at this point, it is the question to be asked. Where in the link I provided can you substantiate your claim that Steiner claims the self to be non-physical? Like Descartes he makes no initial claims about the self. To claim that it is matter or to claim that it is spirit is to make an unwarranted assumption right at the outset.

    keiths,
    Steiner is making a stupid error. That you are trying to cover it up is actually a good sign — it means that you recognize the error and are embarrassed by it. The problem is that you are trying to whitewash it away, so that you can continue to pretend that the Dear Leader got it right. Don’t do that, Charlie. It’s dishonest and it will only hurt you in the long run.

    I am covering up nothing You are the one who is making the error.

  39. CharlieM,

    Focus Charlie, Steiner is saying that materialists ascribe the power of thinking to matter instead of to himself, when the truth is that the physicalist is not doing such a thing, for the physicalist himself is material, thus not separate things!!!!!!!! See it now? Steiner talks as if the physicalist thinks of matter and himself as different things, which is pretty stupid.

    It’s too clear already. Explained many times to you, you keep sidetracking. Confront the crap head on! Stop sidetracking. Steiner is supposedly talking about the physicalist position, yet he says that the physicalist ascribes thinking to matter instead of to himself, but the physicalist doesn’t do such a thing.

    Do you understand this? What about instead of sidetracking you repeat the objection, in your own words, to show us that you do understand it?

  40. keiths: Steiner is claiming that if the physicalist is correct, then the following sequence must occur, in the specified order:

    1. matter decides to think
    2. matter thinks

    What he fails to recognize is that deciding is a form of thinking. If thinking cannot occur until after a decision is made, then thinking can never get off the ground, because the decision itself is a thought. It’s simple logic.

    Steiner is not talking about the order things happen in the course of evolution he is talking about the beginning of philosophical enquiry and this does begin from deciding to think. You don’t ponder you own existence by thinking about what you are going to have for dinner, that would be just plain unreflective thinking which is not the place to start philosophizing.

  41. CharlieM: And I believe Stenier would agree that this is the physicalist/materialist’s position. Steiner is not saying that this position is false, he is saying that this cannot be the starting point of philosophical enquiry.

    And the “physicalist” is saying that we’re not at the starting point of philosophical inquiry. We’ve learned things, such how brains work, are altered by drugs, etc., and we can make sound inferences from those observations.

    Steiner is here taking the same starting position as Descartes. Descartes starts his enquiry from a position of doubt about everything but his own self.

    We have our doubts about Descartes’ Meditations. However he does actually doubt his own self, but, at least while thinking, he must exist (clearly a doubtful claim from his position, about all he can say for sure is that thinking exists when thinking occurs–how does that substantiate “ego”?). Maybe more importantly, Descartes’ quite anxious to move on, and thinks that he can do so with warrant (again, doubtful).

    Whether this self is mind or matter or both is not to be decided at this point, it is the question to be asked.

    I really can’t see where you think that we have to go back to the starting point of philosophy when we’re out to do scientific thinking.

    Where in the link I provided can you substantiate your claim that Steiner claims the self to be non-physical?

    As Entropy points out, Steiner claims it’s either the “I” or it’s “matter,” as if it were only one or the other, and since he mischaracterizes “physicalist” thinking as simply that “matter thinks,” he assumes that the “matter” side is necessarily self-defeating.

    Like Descartes he makes no initial claims about the self. To claim that it is matter or to claim that it is spirit is to make an unwarranted assumption right at the outset.

    Only if it were at the outset, rather than well after a host of discoveries about the brain.

    Glen Davidson

  42. CharlieM: Steiner is not talking about the order things happen in the course of evolution he is talking about the beginning of philosophical enquiry and this does begin from deciding to think. You don’t ponder you own existence by thinking about what you are going to have for dinner, that would be just plain unreflective thinking which is not the place to start philosophizing.

    Again, why should we begin philosophizing, rather than using successful discoveries to move on with thinking about minds and thinking?

    Glen Davidson

  43. CharlieM: Steiner is here taking the same starting position as Descartes. Descartes starts his enquiry from a position of doubt about everything but his own self. Whether this self is mind or matter or both is not to be decided at this point, it is the question to be asked. Where in the link I provided can you substantiate your claim that Steiner claims the self to be non-physical? Like Descartes he makes no initial claims about the self. To claim that it is matter or to claim that it is spirit is to make an unwarranted assumption right at the outset.

    Oh, yes, it’s quite clear that Steiner is taking himself to be engaging in a Cartesian methodology. That’s precisely what’s wrong with it.

  44. GlenDavidson: Again, why should we begin philosophizing, rather than using successful discoveries to move on with thinking about minds and thinking?

    I would prefer to put it as a distinction between philosophizing that begins with reflecting on successful discoveries about minds and thinking and philosophizing that begins with a pretense of skepticism about everything that’s ever been discovered.

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