Wednesday, February 13, 2008

It's all in the Mind 3

I have heard it said for most of the fifty years that I have lived as one person among the 6.6 billion of us that inhabit this blue planet that the most fundamental question anyone can ask is "Who am I?"  This might seem a little irrelevant given the fact that I'm an individual - one sentient human creature among 6.6 billion.  I'm less that a speck on a very small planet which in its turn is less than a speck when our sun is seen as the size of an average-sized football.  When our sun is compared with the star Arcturus it in its turn is a speck and the earth, well it is too infinitesimally small to be registered by the human eye.  See the following link to get a graphic representation of how small earth is, and then ponder our insect-like significance: Our World.  Anyway as one of these individuals called human beings who live on this speck of earth I believe that the question "Who am I?" is one of the most important.


One of the things I believe concerning us humans is that we believe deeply that we are important.  We build cultures and civilizations which weave great myths, customs and knowledge of all kinds to continually convince (deceive?) us in our erring (or unerring?) belief.  If we're true philosophers we won't jump to too many conclusions too soon before exploring all the possible avenues.  As you will realise, this post is getting more and more complicated.  But that is okay, is it not?  After all, the/a philosophy of mind is possibly the most intricate areas of philosophy to study.  Likewise the many problems that the very nature of consciousness poses are also germane to our explorations here.

Another inextricably linked area to philosophy of mind and consciousness is, quite naturally, the area of psychology.  One might also like to throw in several other germane areas also like neurology, neuroscience, brain surgery and psychiatry to muddy the waters just a little.

Now back to some interesting theoretical questions (as distinct from existential ones like pain, anxiety and angst etc).  Think of your colleagues at work.  Next call to mind your good friends and even your spouse (if you have one).  Do any of these people know that "real me" if you will permit me to interchange the first person for the third person pronoun from this on.  They shape a picture of me from what they have observed of me on a daily basis.  They might also take account of what I say, my sense of humour, my general personality which hopefully exhibits certain constant individual traits specific to me or who they know as me.  However, that's not certain knowledge, is it? I could be an actor, a deceiver or a con artist.  Now if they do not know the real me, can I know the real other?  Indeed, a further question would be do I even now the real me?  Would the real me please stand up?  Am I a chameleon or is there a real essence that is me, an "I" different from the 6.6 billion minus 1 others?

Now I think of a relationship I had which broke down.  Obviously I will remember being very upset and even very disturbed.  My certainties have been shattered.  My world of perceived patterns and shapes has broken down and is totally out of shape - at least the shape that I had stamped on it.  Then what of such marvellous abstractions like "friendship", "care", "love", "fidelity," "loyalty," and "trust" which I experienced in this relationship?  Do they now exist?  Or do they only exist out there in a marvellous world of Ideas which Plato described so well.  Okay so those sublime "ideas" exist but what about my concrete experience of them - do they exist for me now?  Did I know the "real person" at all?  Was he or she only my idealised construction?  What indeed is a "person" anyway?  As I said when I ended my last post am I just a collocation of neuronal interactions or am I more?  If we change as we get older am I still the "person" I was when I was much younger?  Am I a "body" with a "mind" attached or a "mind" with a "body" attached? (There are, of course, other huge questions in this complex area of philosophy like (i) what is the nature of our consciousness? (ii) are animals conscious in the same way as we are?  Can they be said to have a mind? (iii) Can a computer be called intelligent?  Can it develop a mind or a personality even?)

John R. Searle in his wonderful book Mind: A Brief Introduction (Oxford 2004, 4) reminds us that when discussing the philosophy of mind we should bear important distinctions in mind, with the following one being, I think, more relevant to my post here:

The first is the distinction between those features of the world that are observer independent and those that are observer dependent or observer relative.  Think of the things that would exist regardless of what human beings thought or did.  Some such things are force, mass, gravitational attraction, the planetary system, photosynthesis and hydrogen atoms.  All of these are observer independent in the sense that there existence does not depend on human attitudes.  But there are lots of things that depend for their existence on us and our attitudes. Money, property, government, football games and cocktail parties are what they are, in large part, because that's what we think they are.  All of these are observer relative or observer dependent.  In general, the natural sciences deal with observer-independent phenomena, the social sciences with the observer dependent.

There is simply so much to learn. The above picture shows me teaching in the Gaeltacht of Árainn Mhór.

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