A reader asks me a philosophy question. I’m not a philosopher, and if I were, I’d probably be a bad one.
I am aware from your blog Pharyngula that you are a materialist when it comes to the issue of consciousness, and that you feel that neuroscience and physIcal processes are enough to explain consciousness. But I have a question for you about your views regarding this.
There is one very puzzling aspect of consciousness which I have always puzzled over; and that is the very perplexing question of why, out of the numerous consciousnesses existing in the universe at all places and all time periods, the consciousness of this particular individual is the only one that is actually ME. A common way this question is often phrased is “Why am I me and not someone else?” The philosopher Benj Hellie calls it the vertiginous question, and he puts it like this: “Of all the subjects of experience out there, why is this one — the one corresponding to the human being referred to as Benj Hellie (substitute yourself for him) — the one whose experiences are actually live (i.e., present, or available, or currently being experienced).
It seems to me like this is a perplexing question regardless of whether materialism or dualism is true, because either way, it seems equally irresolvable. If materialism is true, you can ask “Why am I this brain and not some other brain?”, and if dualism is true, you can ask “Why am I this soul and not some other soul?” Neither option provides any more of an answer than the other. So it seems this question is separate from, and neutral with regard to, the whole materialism vs. dualism question.
So do you have any ideas on how this very puzzling mystery could possibly be explained?
Thank you, and good luck with your blog and everything else!
I know nothing of Benj Hellie and have never read anything by him. I don’t even understand the question, which may be why I don’t find it “puzzling” or “perplexing”. As a materialist, my consciousness and sense of self is entirely local, a product of the physical properties of my brain. I wouldn’t hold up a rock and ask, “Why is this rock this rock, and not that other rock?” I don’t think objects are interchangeable, therefore selves are not interchangeable.
I must be missing something, because the question just looks stupid to a materialist and doesn’t seem to resolve anything about dualism. Maybe someone out there can find something that makes sense of it.
SC (Salty Current) says
Yeah, it doesn’t make sense. Perhaps this person could explain what they think the materialist account of consciousness is, because their confusion seems to stem from a basic misunderstanding.
Yeah, I don’t get it either.
It looks like this isn’t a good question to even bother asking.
You are the brain you are because you are the brain you are.
This is a truism, it is trivial, and it is also true.
Matt G says
What keeps the soul tethered to the body? Can my soul and your soul occupy the same space? How do I know God isn’t making my decisions for me? At least the Zen practitioner asks unanswerable questions without trying to, you know, actually answer them.
I mean, I get the question. It’s not an interesting question: assuming humans have a conscious experience of their own self, why am I this consciousness and not some other one? But the whole point is that the experience of self is an experience… of self. You don’t experience a different self because if you were, you could ask the same question about THAT self.
I admit my brain starts to shut down whenever it hears philosophers.
What the hey. As I understand it, the question may be nearly impossible to frame properly anyway.
But, when I become aware of my own awareness, I always find the experience bizarre and a little unsettling. So I pose it this way: imagine a “transporter” (with pattern buffer) that disassembles every molecule in you at one end, and at the other end you are separately and perfectly replicated molecule for molecule. You are dead, consciousness, self-awareness kaput –completely forever. Elsewhere there is another you who thinks they are you and experiences your life as part of the continuity of their existence.
BUT if you were transported via Stargate, where you are disassembled at the molecular level, and those molecules are physically moved through a worm hole and reassembled, are you still really you?
Duh, was that supposed to be a hard question? This consciousness is Artor, because this one writing is the one that had the experiences that make up Artor. If it was someone else, then someone else’s consciousness would be writing this response. But they’re not, I am. Maybe there’s some deeper complexity here, but it seems like a plainly obvious tautology to me.
John Crown says
I think the confusion stems from thinking about themselves and their consciousness in reverse. It makes more sense if you think of the ‘me’ as being the primary entity. “I have a brain”, or “I have a soul” that’s responsible for my consciousness. But if that’s true then could I have a different brain? That’s backwards though. Really “I” doesn’t have a brain. There is a body with a brain that makes something that thinks of itself as I.
People don’t like to think in that direction though. It’s easier to think of your body as being some part of you, when really you are some part of your body. That and the fact that there can be no consciousness without a brain creating it is baffling to some people I think.
The very best part of this philosophical question, I admit, is that it is making me happy I’m not the only one who does not understand it.
Isn’t it just a collection of memories, experiences, or something? Does biological issues play a factor? What if I had suffered damage to my brain 30 years ago (I didn’t), would that play a factor? Would I have been a different person from the one I would have been if I had not?
Or am I just “me” because “me” is the only person I can be?
As the Tralfamadorians told Billy, there is no why, it just is.
Matt G says
Memory is stored in the brain, and we know a lot about how and where. When the brain dies, why would anyone think the memories continue on?
As an odd parallel, it’s like the lottery. The probability of you specifically winning a lottery if you only play one time is super duper low. The probability of someone eventually winning the lottery approaches 1 as the number of people playing increases and the number of times played increases. If you get lost in thinking that the probability of winning the lottery only refers to the specific probability that you will win the lottery the one time you play it, of course it seems miraculous if you do play the lottery and win; some people who do win the lottery do seem to think there was some divine providence to their winning and it not just being a lottery.
The probability that the constellation of physical and biological components of the universe converge to produce the psychological phenomena of “you” are low, but not 0. The probability that those components eventually converge to produce something that gives rise to psychological states such as consciousness is much higher (though not as high as someone eventually winning the lottery, given our current understanding of the universe). So the question of “why am I me and not someone else” is answered pretty easily. Why not you instead of someone else? You were just as (un)likely as some one or some thing else, so maybe don’t get lost in thinking that there’s anything more interesting going on here. From the universe’s perspective (inasmuch as we should anthropomorphize the universe), you’re just a random meaningless and very temporary result of unguided physical and biological processes. If you ask the question of “why am I me and not someone else” to search for meaning, you’ve already lost the ability to formulate a coherent argument because the question itself isn’t coherent. If you want “you” to have meaning in some sort of strict philosophical sense, don’t look to the metaphysics, look to ethics.
Brian Pansky says
ya I was going to say, “Why am I this brain and not some other brain?” basically translates into “Why is this brain this brain and not some other brain?”
Brian Pansky says
*and that question answers itself.
@John Crown ya that’s probably what people are mixing up when thy ask this question.
And the person asks about neuroscience “explaining” consciousness, but doesn’t say what they think that explanation is. The explanation is that the states and processes of consciousness ARE states and processes of the brain. They aren’t some additional thing.
Aachen on the Plains says
“Why am I this collection of experiences and not some other collection of experiences?”
Matt G says
Brian@12- Reminds me of the fine-tuning argument: if these parameters were just a little bit different, the universe couldn’t exist. Yeah, if these parameters were different THIS universe couldn’t exist.
As a scientist you are technically a philosopher. You just happen to work in the branch of it (that Aristotle called Physics, as will no doubt please you inordinately) that actually has a method for weeding out the bad and incorrect ideas within its purview and then uses it to assemble a coherent body of knowledge. The other branches would certainly benefit from a similar robust development, some do do it better than others, but it is this stark contrast that makes most people think that science is distinct from philosophy rather than a subset of it. As it is, it is heavily informed by the philosophy of Epistemology and in turn heavily informs the philosophy of Metaphysics (at least it does when Metaphysics is done right).
Brian Pansky says
but then when they make the same mixup regarding “souls”…so maybe the problem isn’t just their understanding of physicalism, I think they just have no idea what the word “I” means. “I” is just a self-reference, so it just refers to whatever one is saying it, so that’s the answer.
But then they give that quote about which one is “live”, as if the others are not also currently live. They are. They are just separate from yours. Which is basic theory of mind that every child learns (see Sally-Anne test).
It would be much more challenging if you ask about some AI that can exist on different substrates, being loaded on different servers at different occasions.
And what about using the transporter in Star Trek?
It annihilates your body, then creates a perfect copy at the place you want to reach. Is this murder?
Brian Pansky says
I think the problem can only arise from a supernaturalist idea that “you” are outside both your body AND your experiences and outside the universe basically just watching these experiences like a homunculus watching some television. Then it’s “why is this experience on my TV right now?? How do I change the channel?”
But that’s not the setup that physicalism proposes. So we don’t have that problem.
Of all the thumbs that exist in the universe, the probability is vanishingly small that the only two thumbs containing DNA that exactly match my DNA would end up on my hands. Therefore, God?
There was a Canada goose on my lawn earlier today. In Minnesota there hundreds of thousands of Canada geese, and tens of thousands just in my area. Of all those geese, what are the chances that that one particular goose would land in my yard? Baffling!
@ 18 birgerjohansson
And there’s the Star Trek episode where, due to a transporter issue, they end up with two Will Rikers.
And the Outer Limits episode:
Pierce R. Butler says
The illustration indicates that agricultural geneticists have made great progress towards creating the perfectly spherical chicken.
Pierce R. Butler says
Oops – apologies to all! Dunno how I posted # 22 in the wrong thread.
If the eye is not irreducible then why are there monkeys instead of nothing?
An earnest response:
“Why am I me and not someone else?” is a question that offers two possibilities: (A) I am me, or (B) I am someone else. Why (A) and not (B)? But what would it look like if (B)? I would see through this other person’s eyes, have their experiences, and for all intents and purposes I would be that person. And so if (B) were true, rather than asking myself “Why (B) and not (A)?”, I would still be asking myself “Why (A) and not (B)?” In other words, there is no possible world where (B) appears to be true.
If this answer seems unsatisfactory, then I suspect that the questioner is actually trying to get at a different question, and is failing to communicate what that question is. There are many other similar, but more interesting questions we could pose, such as, “Why am I one person and not many?” or “How does a brain made of many parts produce a single self?”
It seems odd to me that no one has mentioned disorders of the brain (e.g. multiple personality disorder).
Sometimes when things don’t work right you can get some clues about how things should work.
“Why am I this brain and not some other brain?”
Why did X win the lottery and not Y?
Ah, @11 answered it. Next try:
Why did one particular spermatozoon fertilize that particular egg cell? And at that date, but not about a month before?
The problem with dualists is that they’re incapable of accepting probabilism. I suspect that they want to feel special one way or another. Few things are as humble as being the product of some probablistic process.
How do you mean, baffling?
I have wondered about this question. Specifically, if animals like beetles vastly outnumber humans, then shouldn’t I be much, much more likely to be a beetle than a person?
I accept that the brain produces consciousness, but why should I have the perspective of a conscious person? Why do I exist? It’s baffling.
@27 Why should I be a human, instead of an insect, when insects vastly outnumber people? That is what’s most baffling.
What do you imagine this “you” is that can be either a human or (more likely, because there are more of them) a beetle?
If someone were to pick a single animal out of all macroscopic life on Earth, it’d be more likely to be a beetle than a human. But that has nothing to do with the process by which any given mind thinks philosophical thoughts about itself.
The mildly deranged penguin points out the alleged question does not involve cheese. Therefore, she observes, it is neither a question nor of interest (and certainly neither tasty nor a walrus). If it were about cheese — say,— the answer would be obvious: Eat ’em both! (This clearly presumes both cheeses being offered are, in fact, cheeses, and not, e.g., a pea in disguise.) QED, she says, finishing off the last of the cheeseboard (which had more than a mere two cheeses (and certainly no peas!))…
chigau (違う) says
So this is actually a religious question about God’sWill™.
Mark Jacobson says
It’s phrased badly, but it’s not a nonsensical question. It boils down to “Why is the universe in this discrete state, instead of a different discrete state?” And you’re entirely correct PZ, it’s a function of the physical properties and history of the state.
Granularly the question becomes “Why is this particle observed with these properties and not other properties?” Which falls under the domain of interpreting quantum mechanics, and that does have a legitimate philosophical element to it.
The Vicar (via Freethoughtblogs) says
“Why does all the water in this puddle match the shape of the ground so perfectly? Why isn’t this water shaped like the bottom of some other puddle?! It must be god!”
I honestly don’t think that’s the question being asked; I think that’s an attempt to turn the question into a sensical one by reframing it in a coherent framework, which the original question doesn’t have.
Mark Jacobson says
Yeah, I might be giving the questioner undue credit.
A person throws a dart into a nearby barn wall.
The sensible description is that nobody would have missed the wall.
It is a misunderstanding to ask why the person sent the dart to that specific part of the wall.
The person was aiming for the wall, and hit it. Where exactly they hit was irrelevant, meaningless, and pointless to discuss.
slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says
why is red red and not blue? they’re both frequencies of light. why is this frequency different than this one? Is this red apple also this red cherry? This beach in Aruba is covered in white sand, it is the same sand on Bahama, they are both white sand, is there a difference?
Is this philosophy or phishing?
I’ll give it a shot:
Why would you expect the question to provide the answer? Maybe you’re asking the wrong question, or maybe the question simply has no answer.
Why would assume that the question should be answered? Just because you can ask a question doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile to seek an answer.
My assessment is:
The only way this question makes sense as a question is if you assume an external cause, a conscious source which decides which brains/souls go where. If you don’t believe in such a source, then the question is meaningless. You are you because that’s just the way it worked out. There is no why– a near-infinite number of cosmic coincidences piled up to a certain point, and you are the result. If things had been different, then things would be different. Probably.
The short of it is that the answer to the question you’re asking is a shrug, and sometimes you just have to be satisfied with that.
Frederic Bourgault-Christie says
There’s a deeper problem here in addition to what the commentariat has noted.
How is dualism an answer to his question?
I wake up every day and never pick my history. Even if history didn’t make me who I am, and that sure seems false the moment I consult my experiences even for a fraction of a second, I sure didn’t. I like who I am, but I would also make some changes.
How does consciousness being an immaterial substance or there being a God or anything else help me figure any of that out?
At least a naturalist research paradigm gets me answering useful questions. I can see if people are influenced by their parents, or their peers, or their culture, or various aspects of their biology, or life events like injuries. We’re a long way from perfect answers, but some useful ones are coming along. Maybe there’s some immaterial X factor in all that, but starting by assuming there is just seems foolish.
And yet these people want us to just start there, even though it isn’t an answer.
“God gave me my soul” is no more or less philosophically satisfying than “An array of physical variables gave me the current configuration of my brain”. The original questioner may be more or less open-minded, but many people with similar perspectives are happy to just offer this non-answer.
Because they’re not looking for an answer. They’re looking for an emotionally compelling reason to stop asking questions. And “A loving magic Daddy made me this way” feels better than “Sometimes capricious natural factors made me this way”.
They explicitly say they don’t consider it one.
John Morales says
It’s a trivial question. You are you because if you weren’t, you wouldn’t be you.
(Law of identity)
I’m a little surprised no-one’s willing to admit they pondered this very question when they were lying in bed when they were 8 years old.
I certainly did. But even when I was 8 I figure the word “why” was too loaded. It was more a wonderment that it’s but a twist of fate my consciousness and sense of identity, for good or ill, inhabits this life rather than another. But as the “why” purpose and cause was obvious even when I was 8. All humans having consciousness means all humans must be somebody.
It was never a question of “why”, it was more a wonder of what if “why”.
I suppose it could also be interpreted “can individual human beings really deep down really understand and believe their consciousness is ‘local’ and not somehow singularly central to the universe”? It’s only if you assume that deep down at some level humans can’t, that the question even makes any sense.
Marcus Ranum says
Its questions like that which justify a simulationist response: “it doesn’t matter you’re just a pointer to a table row” or “maybe when the engine rolled you up RNG rolled a bunch of 3s”
Seems like just a pseudo-sophisticated attempt to argue that “souls” are real. It also ignores the presence of “consciousness” in animals. To pose the question “why am I this chimpanzee and not that one?” Same for dogs, crows, parrots, and probably most other vertebrates, plus at least the octopus among invertebrates.
I remember asking myself this question when I was about 6. Later it evolved to “if I had real telepathy how could I tell the difference between myself and the person whose mind I was experiencing?”
Later it became a question about uploading myself to a computer system.
Looking back on it it is a concern about preserving self. E.g. would me sense of self flow from brain to brain or brain to computer?
That then leads to the question of what it means to flow through time just in my own brain, and how is it I am composed of paets but seem to be a whole?
Lol the arrogance. “Why am I so special?!” – you’re not. Next.
Brian Pansky says
What’s baffling? If it’s more common for a randomly chosen living thing to be a beetle than a person, so what? What do you think is logically entailed by such a fact? What outcome do you think is made more probable?
When you say “I”, you are referring to a human. A human is not a beetle, and this fact is not baffling. A human is never likely at all to be a beetle. The relative quantities of humans and beetles has nothing to do with that fact.
And “you” are not some disembodied thing that could ever possibly have become attached to some other body. There was a zero percent chance of you becoming attached to a beetle body instead of a human one.
So you accept:
—“the brain produces consciousness”
—the brain of the one calling itself “ORigel” exists
thus the brain of the one calling itself ORigel will produce consciousness, thus it will have the perspective of a conscious person. And this consciousness exists because that brain exists. Not baffling.
Mike Smith says
actual philosopher here. The question is trivial from the third person perspective and there is no way that was what the person was getting at. subject-A is subject-A because of their brain or soul. The question might be unintelligible and/or a bad question but it is trying to get at why does being subject-A feel like being subject-A from A’s experience; if would subject-A remain if it felt like subject-B’s experience.
Did Gary Oldman feel like Churchill to Gary Oldman when filming The Darkest Hour might help some people get a sense of the question. From the 3rd person perspective Oldman felt like Churchill even through it was Oldman. (insert any performance you prefer).
The interlocutor should have sent some more material to be understood more.
I’ll also confess to thinking about this when I was a child, and even as a young adult. Of course the answer is a materialistic one – the common factor about all of my experiences is that my body was physically there to experience them, so my consciousness is intrinsically tied to my brain, and no one else’s. Without the one you can’t have the other; and the state of the brain also influences the mode of consciousness. I’ve had a number of seizures from vaso-vagal syncope over the years and the occasional experience of going through a temporarily impaired, half-conscious state before full consciousness returns is convincing evidence enough for me that it’s the brain that is generating my consciousness.
As for the reason this question comes up, I’d ascribe that to the large amount of fiction which is inherently dualistic, especially pulp science fiction where brains doing things that are completely outside our experience of what brains can do is commonplace.
Why am I reading this blog and not another, different blog? It seems likely that there are answers to this question, such as I find the subject matter interesting, I like PZ’s often contrarian viewpoints, I happened to become acquainted with the site at some point in the past by some means I do not precisely remember, a few or a thousand other mostly trivial reasons. I see little value in trying to find the definitive answers, assuming there are any. The value is in the experience. That probably sounds pretentious and trivial in itself, but oh well.
John Morales says
Well, duh. Same answer as my #42. It’s every bit as trivial.
Being subject-A, whatever is felt by subject-A is what subject-A feels.
Same thing again; whatever subject-A feels is what subject-A feels.
why ? because! Why? because!
Why? because! Why! Because? why.
Because. Why because? because why!
@7 Thank you! I couldn’t figure out how to articulate the problem.
But while I’m here, why do I have this nose and not some other nose? No, really. Why?
Dr. Pablito says
I think an old koan is relevant here. Mumon writes:
“Bodhidharma sits facing the wall. His future successor stands in the snow and presents his severed arm to Bodhidharma. He cries: “My mind is not pacified. Master, pacify my mind.”
Bodhidharma says: “If you bring me that mind, I will pacify it for you.”
The successor says: “When I search my mind I cannot hold it.”
Bodhidharma says: “Then your mind is pacified already.”
And as always, Mumon’s comment: “That broken-toothed old Hindu, Bodhidharma, came thousands of miles over the sea from India to China as if he had something wonderful. He is like raising waves without wind. After he remained years in China he had only one disciple and that one lost his arm and was deformed. Alas, ever since he has had brainless disciples.
Why did Bodhidharma come to China?
For years monks have discussed this.
All the troubles that have followed since
Came from that teacher and disciple.”
The entity/physiological process referred to as “me” is an emergent property of the electrical signals being received and processed by my brain. The reason I am me, and not someone else in existence, is because “I” am defined in relation to those signals.
If those signals were coming from and being processed by a different brain and body, I would be that person. That person would still think of themselves as “me”, as every person does, but they would not be “me” as I currently am.
Mind if I ruin a few more classic philosophical quandaries?
A tree falling in a forest certainly does make a sound if nobody is there to hear it.
An omnipotent being could absolutely make a rock so heavy even it couldn’t lift it. It could also lift it. This is a contradiction inherent to the concept of omnipotence, and is evidence that omnipotence cannot exist in our reality.
Yes, the universe is deterministic based on physical laws. The future is as immutable as the past. But also, free will exists because there is no way to predict the future. Uncertainty might not be built into the universe, but it certainly is built into our conscious experience.
That of course depends on how you define “sound”. People often report hearing things in their head that don’t arrive there from outside by mechanical means, yet that person experiences “sound”.
Curly Howard had the best answer to this question: “Because there’s no bones in ice cream”.
consciousness razor says
You can describe that sort of thing as aural/auditory imagery, while using “sound” when it genuinely pertains to acoustics.
As a philosophically bent person, I can provide some hints to this. Like someone further up the chain said, philosophy have a proud tradition of not weeding out bad ideas as quickly as other paths that cling to crazy stuff like processes and tests and reality and other smut like that!
The OT suffer from a reverse polerization of subjects, looking from the ego to the world. Of course it looks like he’s special, unique, the star of this odd reality-show we call living. It’s the ego-centric approach where the ego is regarded as something very special indeed, so it becomes almost natural to ask why this very special ego blessed with my observations and actions, totally befitting the special setting in which I stand? It must be something very special going on! (And a side-note is that this ego-centric starting point is at the heart of most dualistic and pre-modernist philosophies. Cogito, ergo sum, amirite?)
Once you pull back from thinking that all knowledge is objective and where the universe revolve around you especially, questions like these go away. But it does take a bit of practice and reading and study and thinking to get it right. Even though I might sound a bit snarky about this, it’s very common … but it’s ok! It’s quite natural for us to think we’re special, so no judgement from me. Now go forth and realize your specialness needs to be guarded against – it creates a bias that most good science know to shield itself against! – especially in terms of philosophy and science.
So, what – “what if all the properties that make me myself were instead the different properties that make someone else themselves? Would I still be myself, or would I be that someone else instead?”
The comparison to an actor playing a role doesn’t make sense. If Gary Oldman didn’t merely play the part of Winston Churchill, but was born to Winston Churchill’s parents at the time and place of Winston Churchill’s birth and went through Winston Churchill’s childhood and lived his life… sorry, who’s Gary Oldman again?
The interpretation of this that gives me the existential heebie-jeebies is not “Why am I me?”, but “Why am I anyone?”
There are billions of bodies that contain (create?) consciousnesses who are not me. Why does one of them contain me? Why doesn’t it contain someone else, too? That someone else might be a lot like me, or they could be totally different. They might practically be me in the eyes of everyone who knows me, but it doesn’t have to be “me”.
What would it have taken for there not to be a me at all? Any single change at all, at any scale, in the history of the entire universe? Does that mean that any arbitrary point in the future could spontaneously wipe “me” out, and replace me with a different consciousness who only thinks that they’re me? What if another “someone else” wakes up tomorrow in my body?
…and then I think “that’s stupid. You’re a product of your brain. If you brains exists and keeps working, you exist. If your brain doesn’t exist or stops working, you won’t have anything to worry about.”
But every now and then I still come back to the question.
John Morales says
Which is basically the same question as “why does existence exist?”.
Sorry, can’t see the numinousness of it.
Personally, I was busy wondering what it would feel like to not exist.
Brian Pansky says
Wait, where else do you want to start? What alternative do you think is possible?
@John Morales #65 – Yeah, but my brain keeps occasionally returning to the thought anyway.
I suppose it feels like a cross between an optical illusion and a magic-eye image, but for the logical part of your brain. If the thought doesn’t click with your brain, it just looks stupid (or pointless). If it does, you can reason yourself into knowing that it’s stupid, but that doesn’t stop your brain from “seeing” and worrying about it despite that. Kind of like Roko’s Basilisk, I guess.
Well, meh. It’s fun for a while.
Callinectes @ 16
Or philosophy has become a subset of science. What is it anyway with those philosophers who want to philosophize about science the way some physicists condescend to educate biologists?
Epistemology, ethics absolutely. But I think all those -ism’s can be safely left to historians who care about that stuff– maybe with the exception of actualism, in the non-metaphysical sense, and even that is dicey.
(My apologies to philosophers out there for my lack of convoluted wordiness.
Which reminds me, knot theory might be something worth pursuing for those of a certain bent.)
That’s only if you choose to define “sound” by perception, which we don’t generally do. If I hallucinate a cat, that doesn’t mean there was actually a cat. Likewise, if I hallucinate a sound, it doesn’t mean there was actually a sound.
As a materialist, I define “sounds” as sonic waves in a medium. That they can be detected by the human ear or by other instruments has no impact on their existence.
John Morales says
Nice explanation — that, I get. Thanks.
John Morales says
quasar, quite the digression, but…
That’s circular, much like CR’s “acoustics”.
(I think you meant compression/rarefaction waves — which can only happen in a medium, so that part of it is otiose)
But you miss Lofty’s point; for example, if ‘sound’ is defined as that which can be heard, then that which can’t be heard is not a sound, and conversely that which is heard is whether or not its source is such waves.
(And to be heard requires a hearer, to explain the koan)
define it as a sensory effect. By analogy, color is not a property of materials, it is a sensation constructed by the brain (in the same way that pain is not a property of sharp objects).
Re: falling trees. Define ‘nobody’. Are not birds, bugs, and badgers somebodies?
John Morales says
Don’t need to do any such definition; if they’re somebody, then nobody there means they’re not there, if not, it’s irrelevant.
And while on tangents, it’s a shame Mike the professed philosopher hasn’t responded.
(I was kinda looking forward to their erudite retort)
@72 John Morales
Yeah, “compression/rarefaction waves” works. Regardless of my word choice fails, I personally define “sound” as a physical phenomena that doesn’t rely on perception, thus trivially resolving the philosophical question.
Of course, it can also be trivially resolved if you do choose to define “sound” by perception. If “sound” refers to the perception of a sound, then an unheard sound doesn’t exist by definition. Either way, so long as you define your terms the answer is an unambiguous yes or no.
I get that it draws an easy to understand line between materialist and immaterialist philosophies and so might still be used as a teaching tool, but I find it’s perception in the public consious as some sort of paradox to be very much unearned.
John Morales says
quasar, koans aren’t meant to convey information, they’re meant to make one think, and to consider one’s assumptions and frame of reference.
(As with valid logical arguments, the conclusion depends on the premises)
Which was Lofty’s point. ;)
If they are nobodies but still there, can they still hear?
What is the sound of jocularity falling on deaf ears?
[crickets] I guess I need to work on my schtick.
They say that nothing is impossible, but I do nothing all day.
John Morales says
stroppy, ah yes, language games. Cute retreat.
(Your tail is truly tucked)
consciousness razor says
I don’t see how my statement was circular. I said you could use alternative terms to avoid the ambiguity/confusion that may come with the single term. We have a big language that can definitely handle this sort of distinction, so we’re not in any sense forced to use only the one word.
Acoustics is the branch of physics which studies (what it labels) sound waves and related phenomena — even ones that can’t be heard by a person for whatever reason, possibly because they’re “inaudible” to humans in all circumstances, analogous to light that’s not in the “visible” part of the spectrum. Normally, people don’t pose ponderous questions about trees exposed only to non-visible light (or ones that aren’t being watched), but those could be answered in a similar way.
If instead of sounds in the physics sense, we’re talking about a psychological phenomenon, that isn’t due to waves of that sort propagating through a person’s brain (or anywhere else). There’s an experience or a sensation or whatever you may call it, so it seems like there is a sound, but that isn’t physically what happens.
So if we want to use the physics term just as it’s given to us by physics, we still can, and we’ll be able to make coherent statements about the lack of such sounds in those circumstances, despite the fact that there is a non-veridical experience which suggests otherwise. If you’re in the business of doing psychology or psycophysics, you could talk coherently about something like “auditory imagery” or “hallucinations” or whatever, which doesn’t entail that there are any physical sounds. Everybody’s happy.
But either way, the fact of the matter doesn’t logically depend on that sort of thing. It’s just that you’ll need to say something different to express a correct answer, given your understanding of the purpose of the question.
A correct response should either be that there are indeed physical sounds in that case, even when nobody hears them; or it will be that the question stipulated explicitly that nobody was around to have a perception, so obviously there wasn’t one.
Trolling? Not a good look on you.
John Morales says
Um, if acoustics is the branch of physics examining the properties of sound, to say sound is acoustics is circular. Quasar got that aspect right.
(You might be amused by its etymology — it comes from ‘to hear’)
Not logically, no. Definitionally, yes.
(cf. my aside regarding logic and premises)
Heh. In language games, tit-for-tat is a known strategy.
(You think mocking mockery is trolling?)
consciousness razor says
I don’t think so. It’s just deciding to use that term in that particular way and using other terms for other things. As I said, if I want to talk about those kinds of experiences, I will use something like “auditory imagery,” so it won’t be confused with sound as described in physics by physicists.
I don’t think I’m arguing anything with that, so I don’t think there’s any circularity. As far as I can tell, it’s not a substantive claim, or at least not one that’s relevant here. Yes, I do think physics is more or less right, idealism is wrong, and so forth. But I could choose a different set of words and still have all of the same beliefs, because that stuff isn’t being argued with my choice of words or in how I define them.
If you want an argument for those things, we could have one, but I certainly wasn’t attempting to give one. If you insist that’s what I was doing, unintentionally, then my purported “argument” was total crap. You’ll get no argument from me about that. ;)
Instead, I think I was telling you about a strategy I tend to take with these particular words, so other people won’t (usually) have a problem knowing what I’m referring to.
John Morales says
@66: It wouldn’t feel like anything. Sort of like being dead.
@66: Sort of like being dead–it wouldn’t feel like anything.
@ 86: Sorry– delayed posting.
Wow this thread is long. Just to add in, afaik there seems to be a part of our brains which makes us feel like “ME”. Me is a social and neurological construct. And you can switch that bit of the brain off with drugs, which will make people feel like they’re one with the cosmos (or the carpet, or the room, the city, all their life’s memories, etc.)
So yeah, materialism doesn’t actually have to solve that problem: we are who we are because that’s how our brains work, identity and individuality are true in a pragmatic sense (or bodies and experiences are largely separate), but an illusion when you get right down to the nuts and bolts (people also don’t feel they’re a brain, they feel they’re their entire body/sensory apparatus).
Ah, no, it’s a good starting point, I don’t think there’s any better (and yet people believe in objective truth …). It was just a warning that because this is the starting point, there are biases and pitfalls that come along with it. We humans have a whole bunch of very human, animalistic, biological and psychological constraints that we need to be aware of in our quest for understanding the universe.
If you think you are important to the universe, then the odds of that specialness coming together in your body seems overwhelming. However, if you’re not special at all, the the odds of being you is 1-to-1, ie. there’s no chance ofme being anyone else, I’m just this thing of no significance. (There’s a side-note here about some tennants of buddhism) It’s an odd thing, a bit of a psychological mind bender, similar to all the events in your life all leading up to one point where something special happens – say, meeting the right girl, or getting a massive break, or whatever – that’s amazing odds! But that’s only because you deem it special. If nothing special is going on, the odds seems lower. Driving in traffic and passing that blue car with that number-plate on that stretch of road is equally incredibly against the odds, it’s just that we don’t think it’s special and heed those astronomical odds no mind. Most of life is a long stream of insane odds of happening, but we don’t talk about those. We only talk about those that we give meaning to.
So the point of “Ego, ergo sum” is just that we feel that Ego is special, and so we start thinking of the odds, and wide-eyed continue down the rabbit hole …
(Read the thread)
Also worth noting that the human mind is capable of imagination. Reading a book, watching a film, playing a computer game, listening to someone tell a story: in those moments we can experience vicarious transfer of identity.
Our consciousness is great at pretending to be “ME”, but also great at pretending to be a whole host of other subjects. I’ve flown through the air as a dragon, swam the oceans as a fish. That one specific experience of consciousness rooted in our physical bodies can be considered the “real me” is only because looking after that body is kind of an important thing for brains to do (being the material conditions for their continued existence) and something we spend a long time learning throughout our childhood.
Interesting. Let me start by saying that I can’t remember ever pondering this question, though it is possible I’ve forgotten because it never felt like an important question.
However, for me, this triggers a completely different philosophical association, one that’s actually relevant in mathematics – the Axiom of Choice.
To quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Or a bit simplified, why can I pick out one element of a set? Turns out you can’t derive that from the usual axioms, same as with the parallel thing. It’s special.
And one more, very short remark about cogito ergo sum. I remember, sitting in the bus home from school (no idea how old), somehow suddenly arriving at a heureka moment about cogito ergo sum – that is, it’s pretty much the only thing you can prove about the universe, and it’s also spectacularly useless. You can’t derive anything from it. Especially because of Last-Tuesdayism, you can’t even absolutely trust your memories, or anything else (also see hard solipsism). So to derive anything useful, I have to make the assumptions that there’s an ultimate reality out there and that what I perceive and remember has some connection to it. Otherwise, I’d be pretty much swimming in a big vacuum of results.
Oh yes, and as for the tree thing, for a long time it was puzzling to me that people considered that puzzling – to me it seemed utterly obvious that the answer had to be “of course!”. Because to me, also, “sound” meant “air waves”. It took me a while after someone explained the alternate interpretation to agree that it was legitimate. Of course, that still doesn’t make it a puzzling question. To get that, you have to be confused about your definitions.
… and I think I just now realized why this seemed so obvious to me, as it’s not as if I was unaware of the other definition of “sound”.
It’s because the question is explicitly about the tree making a sound. No reference to a listener whatsoever, you have to bring that in from the outside. What the tree makes is always the air waves, and never the sensation, that is only produced in the listener. So I’m now questioning if that alternate interpretation is indeed legitimate.