I talked a bit about a flawed idea that says we do not have Free Will, but only a sense of Free Will in a previous post: Free Will or No Control? This theory relies heavily on the observation that conditioning molds our behavior. However, since we do not know much about consciousness or how we develop concepts, declaring we have no Free Will is more of a philosophical opinion than a useful scientific theory. That said, we do know that much of our behavior is conditioned and that the culture we live in helps shape much of that conditioning. So, it is important to understand as much as we can about the role conditioning plays in our decision making process.
Last time I wrote about Levels of Being and the difference between consciousness and self-awareness. I have also written about mental maps and how we sometimes confuse our mental constructs (models of reality) with reality itself. I find it useful to think we have mental frameworks, but what do we actually know about how our mind creates concepts?
The answer is (like so much of what we think we know): Not much.
Science vs. Philosophy
Philosophy is the study of all knowledge about the essence of Reality and all that exists in it, including human beings. Science used to be called “Natural Philosophy.” It was a branch of philosophy that dealt with the physical nature of things. It is only very recently that the later term was dropped, and we call all things that we study about the physical world: Science. Further, it’s only since the early part of the 20th century that people began to think that science had developed far enough along that it could replace all of philosophy to explain all of Reality. By the time I went to college, philosophy was no longer a core subject of study. I think this is a mistake because without some understanding of philosophy it is difficult to formulate conclusions about what we see in the models and experiments that scientists conduct. (See Bergson vs Einstein).
I believe that science can help inform other branches of philosophy, but when it comes to questions that border on the edge of our understanding, it helps to be familiar with the a broader philosophical approach that has developed over the centuries.
What is a concept?
Philosophers separate the problem of concepts into 3 categories:
While writing about how we conceptualize the universe, I was reminded that when I was a physics student I often found myself dumbfounded over the way the subject was taught. Notation among physicists often seemed arbitrary and inconsistent (“Only a man could think this is clear,” I thought). And then why would my professors use one system of equations – drop them completely and pick up another – without explaining why or how it connected to the branch of physics we were supposed to be studying?
Sometimes, things were just so. Take for example, Einstein’s Equivalence Principle. In what Universe is gravity – which is a field and keeps us tethered to the earth, (Einstein did not know what that means and, to this day, no one knows what that means) the same thing as a force of acceleration – like when we leave the same earth in a rocket ship? And, I must add, I really don’t care if it’s because Einstein said so. He just made principle up to make his geometry work out, ad hoc. (See What Don’t We Know About Gravity?)
Anyway, I was always lost. Truthfully, everyone was lost – all the young men (40 of them) and women (about 4 of us). But even then, over forty years ago, I could see that men and women approached problems differently and that included subjects that one would think that were beyond our differences like math and science.
As I was recalling all this from my past, I remembered this excellent comedy bit by Mark Gundor, a marriage expert, that I had seen a few years ago. He helps explain, in an entertaining way, the compartmentalized approach to real world problems that men use and women find baffling.
We’re gonna start discussing men’s brains, women’s brains and how they’re very different from each other. Now I wanna start with men’s brains. Alright? Men’s brain are very unique, men’s brains are made up of little boxes and we have a box for everything. We have a box for the car. We got a box for the money. We got a box for the job, we got a box for you, we got a box for the kids, we got a box for your mother somewhere in the basement.
We got boxes everywhere, and the rule is: “the boxes don’t touch”. When a man discusses a particular subject, we go to that particular box, we pull that box out, we open the box, we discuss only what is in that box, alright? and then we close the box and put it away being very, very careful not to touch any other boxes.
Now women’s brains are very, very different from men’s brains. Women’s brains are made up of a big ball of wire, and every thing is connected to everything. The money’s connected to the car, the car’s connected to your job and the kids are connected to your mother, and everything’s connected to everything ….
It’s like the Internet super highway, Ok? And it’s all driven by energy that we call emotion. This is zzzzz. It’s one of the reasons why women tend to remember everything. Because if you take an event and you connect it to an emotion, it burns in your memory and you can remember it forever. The same thing happens for men, it just doesn’t happen very often because, quite frankly, we don’t care.
Please note that I am not advocating rewriting the world of STEM for women. That would be very difficult and counterproductive. However, I think women need to hear from other women what it’s like to enter the world of men’s minds – at least at the scientific level. A big problem women have to overcome in going into “traditionally” male fields is not that they cannot understand the material, but that it is full of male mental frameworks that women find frustrating.
But, after all, is it any wonder that over a hundred years after Einstein proposed his Relativity theories in 1905, physicists have developed a model of all the forces that we know of in the universe, called the Standard Model of Particle Physics, except for gravity and its mysterious fields which touch everything?
I hope you enjoy the video. And I will be referring back to it in the future, I’m so very sure. 🙂
When I was young, and working at a large company in New York, I had a friend who, like me, was a computer programmer. This was in the early 1980s, when office walls were beige, the floors were a dull linoleum and few people had windows to the outside world. One day he brought a large poster of a rainbow into his office as an experiment. He found that when he had visitors their eyes constantly shifted to the bright, natural colors on the poster. He eventually removed it because people could not look at him when they were talking. It was too distracting for visitors to his office. He believed that office buildings were starving people of natural color and other natural stimuli.
I’ve been reading and listening to lectures about the divided brain recently. The “hard” problem how consciousness arises from the brain is endlessly fascinating to me.
In the book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and The Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist, the author begins by explaining how perception of how the two hemispheres work has changed over time. The brain has two hemispheres – the left and the right. In the last century, scientists believed that the left brain was in charge of some things like language and mapping, while the right was in charge of music, art, and abstract thinking. Then it was discovered that both hemispheres were at work on all tasks and scientists believed that it was hopeless to assign certain tasks to one hemisphere or the other and that they were essentially the same.
Mr. McGilchrist, has studied the relationship between the two hemispheres for decades. He tells us that there is a complicated relationship between the left and right hemispheres. It turns out that the physical connection between the hemispheres plays a larger role than once thought about how the two sides communicate. While it’s true that each side of the brain can sustain consciousness on its own, each side attends to the world in its own way. When you are working on certain tasks both hemispheres do work together, but that there are inhibitors from one hemisphere to the other so that the one side is “in charge” or governs certain tasks while the other serves as a facilitator to the other hemisphere. These two modes of thinking can switch quickly as your environment changes around you.
In the animal kingdom we see the same brain division into two hemispheres. It is believed that this helps to protect an animal while its foraging for food. Mr. McGilchrist explains that when a bird is pecking around for a seed on the ground one hemisphere is focused on that task, while the other hemisphere is tasked with keeping a watch out for predators.
Another interesting discovery of how the processing is divided is that new experiences are processed first by the right hemisphere and then mapped out in the left for routine work. For example, the first time you drive to a new job or school, your right hemisphere is busy processing the new experience. You are very aware of the trip to the new location, alert to the new experience. But, after repeated trips to the same location, the left hemisphere maps out the route and after a time you hardly recall the drive at all. Routine tasks are shoved into the background of our conscious thought.
We will probably never understand how the mind works from the simple fact that there’s no way for us to study the brain objectively. In order to observe a any system, we need to be able to separate ourselves from it and observe it working independently of our control. Because each individual is the only one to truly “know” in any way what he/she is thinking it is impossible to say for sure what is going on in any individual brain. One person can observe another from the outside, but the one thinking the thoughts to be observed cannot. There’s no way to be an independent observer of your own thoughts.
Science Fiction sometimes depicts the ability to read minds as a wonderful super power or as a depressing reality of human nature. The stories generally show the mind readers as trying to control the gift so as to preserve the privacy of others. However, it seems to me that if it was discovered that some people could read minds the temptation to control large populations of people would be difficult for those in power to resist abusing that power.
Some might say that we see mind control happening today in the news media massaging the facts to fit a biased narrative or how advertisers persuade us to buy their products. It is true that a great deal of information is known about how to manipulate people, but I believe the brain is highly adaptive to these abuses. Once it becomes aware it is being manipulated, the mind can develop ways to thwart the control of an outsider. The fact that individual “thoughts” are hidden inside each person means that bullies and oppressive governments will never be able to completely control individuals.
And that’s why I’m thankful no one can read minds.