Sunday, May 1, 2016

Stiffening my resolve

In ‘Cycling for Plato?’ I referred to my ‘Cycling for philosophy’ in 1984; unemployed, I took a queue from Norman Tebbit’s ‘get on your bikes’. In ‘The Latter Days of Philosophy’, which underpinned that event, I referred to Martin Walker’s ‘What’s gone wrong with philosophy in Britain?’ Martin Walker wrote: ‘In the greatest intellectual adventure that man has undertaken, the exploration of the very essence of mind and the capacity to think, there is not a philosopher in sight. Perhaps they missed their chance, perhaps they organized their faculties in the wrong fashion, or perhaps it always had to be this way, and the pursuit of the mind will always remain beyond the reach of philosophy.’

Three years ago I put on my website ‘Human Spiritual Nature and the X of Neurophysiologists’. I brought it to the attention of Oxford philosophers – no response. I recorded the piece, put it on my website as a virtual lecture to which I invited Oxford philosophers – no response. And so I sent the text to the Master of Balliol, asking him to present it to Balliol students and academics. This time I did receive a response; the Master of Balliol replied: ‘It is not I fear possible to give you a platform at Balliol.’

In 2013 I had the opportunity to present the Czech version of my paper at the Philosophy Faculty in Plzeň in the Czech Republic and then at the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University in Prague. The discussion on both occasions was very lively; especially fruitful was the discussion with Jaromír Mysliveček, Professor of Neurophysiology at Charles University, the author of Základy neurověd (Foundations of Neurosciences). These encounters stimulated me to revise ‘Human Spiritual Nature and the X of Neurophysiologists’ and put it on my website under the title ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’. David Parker, a neurophysiologist from Cambridge University, subjected the piece to criticism. (See ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative with comments by David Parker’ on my website). I replied to Parker’s comments on my blog in ‘1-5 Notes on the relevance of neurophysiology to human self-knowledge’ (July 11-19, 2015). I posted ‘David Parker’s reply’ to my notes on July 30, ‘A provisional reply to David Parker’ on July 31, and ‘1-3 Self- knowledge and neurophysiology – a reply to David Parker’ on August 28-September 2, 2015).

David Parker (and Jaromír Mysliveček) maintains ‘that what we know about the brain now is sufficient to offer, in principle, a physiological account of consciousness’. I contend that what we know about the brain at present is sufficient for us to realize that what we experience thanks to our brains cannot be produced by our brains; there must be a non-corporeal entity that transforms what goes on in the brain into the world we perceive.

How can I justify my claim? We can see, hear, smell, taste and touch objects, animals, and people around us, and experience our own body, only on the basis of stimuli affecting our senses, which are then transformed into neural impulses that are transmitted to the brain, and processed on the way to the brain and in the brain. These messages exist in all their transformations within the nervous system in forms radically different from the forms we perceive in the world around us. There must therefore be an entity distinct from the brain, which transforms what goes on in the brain into the world which we perceive, in which we see ourselves moving, with which we see ourselves interacting.

The activities by which the information about the physical world around us, processed by the brain, are transformed into the ‘world around us’ of our consciousness are entirely sub-conscious; our conscious activities are focussed on and fully absorbed by the task of perceiving the world constituted by our subconscious activities as the real world around us. But it makes a difference to the way we live if thanks to neurophysiology we can realize that these transformations do take place and that there therefore must be an entity that performs them, for when we know about it, we can take care to live in a way that enhances its contribution to our well-being. I have called this entity the sub-conscious part of our human nature.

We, as we perceive ourselves, and the world as we see it and experience, are differently structured in time and space from the manner in which the information about us and the physical world around us is processed and structured in the brain. We do not model ourselves and the world around us in our brains by our brain activities; we perceive ourselves living in the world, which is in front of us, all around us, the world which must be incessantly produced on the basis of our brain activities. How has the capacity to perform this task been acquired? This question must be asked within the framework of the theory of evolution. The only way that living organisms can have access to the world outside them is by constituting that world within themselves. The material stuff of which living organisms are made leaves no space and provides no means by which the outside world can be physically modelled. The only possible solution could be provided by generating a fundamentally new entity, one capable of existing in the same space with its material counterpart and intimately interacting with the chemical communication in cells and thus with the developing nerve system. The spiritual nature, which ‘produces’ us and the world in which we perceive ourselves living, thus appears to be the result of an evolution that goes back to the first living organisms capable of sensing and avoiding the danger approaching them from the outside, capable of sensing sustenance at a distance and moving towards it.

The sixteen year old Bertrand Russell wrote in his diary: ‘I hold that, taking free will first, to consider there is no clear dividing line between man and the protozoan, therefore if we give free will to men we must also give it to protozoan; this is rather hard to do. Therefore, unless we are willing to give free will to the protozoan we cannot give it to man.’ (Autobiograhy, Routledge Classics, 2010, p. 37)

In ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ I wrote: ‘The interplay between the brain and HSN (Human Spiritual Nature), the needs we feel on the basis of that interplay, and the wishes, intentions and choices with which we respond to them, all play their part in the way we make our choices and determine our behaviour. We determine our actions with some purpose in mind, and this too must be viewed within the framework of evolution. Living beings direct their attention to that which attracts or threatens them, which they can reach or escape, obtain or avoid, in other words to something that is at any given moment possible, but not yet realized, which is in the future that they can co-determine by their preferences, by their actions and inactions. This aspect of spiritual nature contrasts with ‘scientific determinism’, to which Hawking and Mlodinov refer as the sole cause of all our actions. They write: “It is Laplace who is usually credited with first clearly postulating scientific determinism: given the state of universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past … It is, in fact, the basis of all modern science … Since people live in the universe and interact with the other objects in it, scientific determinism must hold for people as well … It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behaviour is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and the free will is just an illusion … If we have free will, where in the evolutionary tree did it develop? Do blue-green algae or bacteria have free will … what about the roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans – a simple creature of only 959 cells? It probably never thinks, ‘That was damn nasty bacteria I got to dine back there’, yet it too has a definite preference in food and will either settle for an unattractive meal or go foraging for something better, depending on recent experience. Is that the exercise of free will?” (Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinov, The Grand Design, Transworld Publishers, 2011, 43-5)

Within the framework of evolution, the preferences of Caenorhabditis elegans can be viewed as a step on the long road leading to the development of HSN. From its evolutionary beginnings, spiritual nature is open to causation that is fundamentally different from the determinism that modern science recognizes as the only causal principle. The behaviour of living beings is co-determined by possibilities. What possibilities a living being chooses face to face with its environment in any given situation is determined by its preferences, which correspond to the state in which it finds itself. The view ‘that we are no more than biological machines and the free will is just an illusion’ distorts our self-knowledge, undermines our sense of responsibility, and negatively affects our ability to act.’

Although we are completely unaware of the interplay between our subconscious and our consciousness in the field of our sensory perception, we can become aware of their interplay when we attend to our thinking, speaking, and listening to what is said. For in all these activities the words emerge from the subconscious into our consciousness, pass through its short stretch phrase after phrase; we are fully conscious of just a few words as they pass into the subconscious. But we understand not just single words or phrases, but the whole sentences, whole paragraphs, whole speeches. This understanding takes place in the interplay between the subconscious and our consciousness.

I became most acutely aware of this interplay when listening to my own recordings of the Greeks. One might think that the recording itself, which involves reading the text and attentively listening to what one reads, must be the most demanding activity, for it is the most complex activity, which presupposes a constant interaction between the visual, auditory, and motor centres in the brain involved in speech, the activities of which must be integrated and brought into one. In fact, and to my great surprise, by far the most demanding activity happens to be listening to the recordings without the text in my hand. It takes all my power of concentration to understand what I am listening to, for it requires very intimate and intense interaction between my consciousness and my subconscious, it presupposes that my subconscious is deeply steeped in, ‘formed and conditioned’ by Ancient Greek. I put ‘formed and conditioned by’ in quotation marks, for each text, each sentence, each word has a definite form which as such passes through consciousness, and as it passes into the subconscious it enriches its dunamis, to use Aristotle’s word, it enhances its capacity to understand new phrases, new word formations. I find this activity as beneficial as it is demanding.

A different approach to the world is enacted and codified in different languages. This is why our learning of any foreign language profoundly enriches our spiritual nature, especially if we embrace the literature written in that language and become as intimate as possible with the whole culture generated within it. Languages that are living offer quite special challenges and rewards, but so does the Ancient Greek, which ‘is dead’. For it becomes alive in so far as we can learn it so as to think it in Greek, without translating it into English in our heads. If we undertake this task, we open our spiritual natures to the influence of language that gave birth to Homer, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Aristophanes, Herodotus and Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus, Lysias, Isocrates and Demosthenes; in their turn, each of these giants enriched Ancient Greek by their thought. It is time to open for students the possibility of enriching themselves in this manner.

When I arrive at Oxford on my bicycle, I shall stay there for three days, one of which will be devoted to my protest at Balliol concerning the refusal of the Master of Balliol to allow me to present to Balliol students and academics ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’.

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