I originally posted the following on WordPress for an ungraded blog post assignment in a rhetoric and community service class. Since the assignment was ungraded, I figured it would be okay to post it here as well. I also edited it a bit too. Hope you like it!
^Brain cell and Universe. Image source unknown.
The following essay discusses a decent amount of semi-general background information about a variety of subjects. Much of it is commonly known or discussed by people interested in particular fields of knowledge, to the point where I don't know precisely who to credit with it all, even though an average person who isn't familiar with those subjects or hasn't taken any classes in them would not be familiar with them much if at all. This is just my own perspective which I have acquired from many years of reading and learning about a variety of subjects. If anything I say in this essay is factually incorrect, or if there's some information below which comes from a particular source that I have forgotten about and you know what that particular source is, please let me know so I can make corrections and citations. I have taken the Pro-Truth Pledge, so please hold me accountable.
Reductionism. A philosophy that many love to argue against, and which almost no one understands. I bet you're already shaking your head sadly at my naivete. I bet you're thinking, "The world is too complex to reduce to simple math. What of civilization, history, culture, art, friendship, love, or the human spirit? There's more to life than numbers and equations."
Yes, there's more to life than sitting in front of a computer crunching numbers all day. On this we agree. But if everything is made out of math, then that means that the computer is made out of math, and your desk is made out of math, and your chair is made out of math, and you are made out of math. And it also means that everyone who ever lived was made out of math, that culture, art, history, and civilization itself are made out of math. That love and friendship, every human and animal emotion and experience and memory is made out of math. That your mind and soul are made out of math, and so too for every human being who has ever lived.
But if everything is made out of math, what does that mean? For most people, mathematics is a particular subject, one of many categories taught about in school, and there are other subjects that are just as important if not more so.
What are these "categories"? Does the Universe actually care about the distinctions and boundaries that we invent? Humans like to put things into categories, organizing our beliefs into different levels of scope. We have different beliefs about how societies work, how people work, how organs work, how cells work, how molecules work, how atoms work, and how quarks work.
But those different "levels" of organization only exist in the mind. Societies are made of people. People are made of organs. Organs are made of cells. Cells are made of molecules. Molecules are made of atoms. Atoms are made of subatomic particles, which are made of leptons and quarks. And being "made of" a thing(s) is the quality of being that thing(s). An atom is the subatomic particles it is made of. A molecule is the atoms it is made of. A cell is the molecules it's made of. Etc.
Societies are made of people. Okay, seems obvious enough. People are made of organs. Okay, not so obvious. What about the human spirit/heart/soul? That's not an organ, is It?
The dominant paradigm throughout much of human society is that the soul is incorporeal, that it is an essence or "spark", and not a function of the body.
But Science offers a different perspective. The human mind and heart/soul are actually two systems of the brain, the Intentional System (otherwise known as system 2, or the Mind) and the Automatic System (system 1, otherwise known as the Heart or Soul). The Intentional System is the slow, deliberative, logical part of the brain, while the Automatic System is the fast, perceptual, emotional side of the brain.
Neuroscientists avoid using the word "heart" to describe the Automatic System because there's already another organ in the body with that name, and they avoid using the word "soul" to describe the Automatic System because it's loaded with supernatural connotations. (The word "spirit" faces similar pitfalls.)
But if you subtract all the supernatural connotations (such as continuing to exist in an afterlife or being a divine "spark" or "essence") then what's left of the word "soul" as it is colloquially used directly corresponds to the Automatic System of the human brain, with maybe a few other Intentional System functions or functions that combine both systems added in.
People talk about the soul as if it is something that feels emotions such as love, friendship and compassion, has moral character and/or personality (like, so and so was such an honest soul), remembers the past, dreams of the future, etc. etc.
What all of these things attributed to souls have in common is that they are all patterns of thinking, feeling, or behavior. In other words they are functions of the brain.
People sometimes say that the eyes are the window to the soul. And of course, what organ lies behind the eyes? The thing that happens to be the most complex object in the known universe?
You guessed it, the human brain.
But wait a moment. The human brain isn't a divine "spark" or "essence". It's a system with a bunch of different parts in it working together. And none of those individual parts seems all that human. Is the amygdala human? Is the neocortex human? Is the hypothalamus human? Where is the human here? Why don't I recognize myself in this machine?
Because that "machine" often can't directly observe it's own internal functioning. The human mind and soul can sometimes have a lot of trouble understanding itself, and ends up making educated guesses about its own functioning based on its interaction with the world around it, or by imagining different ideas and hypothetical experiences and noticing their emotional response.
How do those emotions actually work? You might recognize joy and sorrow, but that doesn't mean you understand it. What is it, where does it come from? How does it connect with the muscle and bones in your arms to make them move when you give someone a hug? What chain of events leads from your emotion of sadness to the biochemical phenomenon of water and other bodily substances being released from your visual sensory-organs?
As stated earlier, the human brain is the most complicated object in the known universe. It is made of trillions of neurons. The neurons are like pixels on a computer, they can be on or off, and concepts are represented by vast networks of neurons, all of which at any particular moment are on or off. The process of a neuron turning on and off is known as an "action potential".
Some of these neurons turn on and off more frequently than others. If you remember some experiences more easily and in more detail than other experiences, it is because the networks of neurons which the better-remembered experiences are represented in are turned on and off more frequently.
Neurons are cells. A cell is generally considered the smallest thing that could still be considered alive, depending on your definition of what counts as life. A single cell, like a neuron, isn't complicated enough to store an entire human being, with all of their thoughts and emotions and memories and desires etc. Just like a single stroke of a paintbrush doesn't paint a picture, since that single stroke by itself is just ink on a canvas. When you fill in all the other brush strokes to paint a picture...what you get is still just ink on a canvas.
However, the color of ink used in each brush stroke and the location of each and every one of those brush strokes mimic the colors and locations of rods and cones in the human eye when that eye sees the same scene in reality which is depicted in the painting. The "pixels" on the canvas correspond to the "pixels" in our eyes, which in turn correspond to the "pixels" in our brain. This is the case even for paintings of hypothetical scenes that we have never personally observed.
What matters isn't whether we've actually seen a particular configuration of colored "pixels", nor whether that configuration itself corresponds to a real phenomenon which can be seen directly. What matters is just that the configuration of differently colored "pixels" on the canvas can be translated into "pixels" in our brains. It means that we can imagine what something would look like if it actually existed and if we saw it directly, even if it doesn't exist and we never see it in real life. And sometimes we have imagined images in our heads which we expect to see in the real world, and we see a different image, a different configuration of colored "pixels", instead.
But the human brain, despite its complexity, has limited image resolution. There is a limit to the amount of detail it can imagine at once, which is why we organize things into categories and different levels of scope, dividing large amounts of detail into fewer chunks for easier storage.
The "pixels" in our brains, neurons, are not the smallest "pixels". Even the neuron is a system with different parts in it working together, including such organelles as the axon, the dendrites, the nucleus, and the cell membrane. And those organelles are made of a variety of substances moving in particular patterns of direction and interaction with each other. Proteins, DNA, ATP, neurotransmitters and hormones are all molecules. And molecules are made of atoms. And atoms are made of subatomic particles such as electrons, protons and neutrons. And those subatomic particles are made of fundamental particles such as leptons and quarks.
So in theory, you could predict literally any phenomenon, no matter how complex, by investigating the locations and motions of all of the fundamental particles involved in that phenomenon. Because that phenomenon, like every other known phenomenon, is made of the locations and motions of many fundamental particles.
For instance, you could in theory predict changes in the stock market just by looking at the locations and motions of fundamental particles. It would just take an enormous, unfathomable amount of time, energy and "pixels", and by the time you actually finish recording all this data and collecting your results, the stock market will have long since changed again, making your prediction useless.
Or perhaps you wouldn't be able to calculate your prediction until the stars have grown cold and humanity has long since died out. Perhaps the whole universe is finite and doesn't contain enough time or energy to complete your calculation.
But even if that is the case, the prediction can still be true or false, and every single individual bit of data could still collected, even if our brains aren't large enough to contain all that information. Even if its not physically possible for any conceivable brain, whether natural or artificial, to contain all that information. The pixels are all out there, to be translated into brush strokes, even if the canvas is too small to contain that many brush strokes.
When people tell stories, they are translating a series of images, of neural networks in their brains into a code of vibrations in the air, which the listener's brain decodes and translates back into a series of images. (For the purposes of keeping things simple just assume that includes other sensory information besides just the visual kind, even if I keep discussing things in terms of vision).
But as I discussed earlier, the images stored in human brains don't always correspond to real phenomena. Sometimes we can be mistaken about what is true and what is real. Sometimes the images in our minds only partially correspond to real phenomena.
I recently heard an argument along the lines that different minority communities have different narratives about or different versions of history which often get overlooked by the majority, whose own narratives and versions of history dominate public discourse. In the context it was made, this argument was being used in part to implicitly justify a relativistic view of truth, because of the belief that claims of "objective truth" are just a way to force the dominant culture's beliefs onto oppressed minorities.
Truth relativism is the idea that the truth is subjective - that there is my truth, and your truth, but that there is not the truth. This is an example of a map-territory confusion - a failure to disintguish between the image of a phemoneon stored in human brains and the phenomenon itself.
Even if different groups of people believe different versions of history, that doesn't make all versions of history equally accurate, nor does it make any particular group's version of history perfectly accurate and complete.
For instance, a diverse culture with roots in many parts of the world which values the study of world history might be more likely to have a more accurate and complete understanding of their place in world history than an ethnocentric culture which places a much higher value on remembering events which have taken place within its own current borders.
You should notice that I am distinguishing between two different definitions of "history": history as the actual events of the past as they actually happened, and history as the stories people tell or believe about the events of the past.
The truth is, regardless of whether you can temporarily convince a part of your brain to think as if it believes a particular group's narrative vision of history, that doesn't necessarily have any bearing on your willingness to learn from that group, understand them, have compassion and respect for them as fellow human beings and do what you can to help them. You don't have to believe the stories groups of people tell about themselves and their place in society to help them. You just need to be willing to listen to them, and consider why they believe those stories, and understand.
And if you find that a view that is commonly held by a group of people seems to describe reality more accurately than a view of your own which it conflicts with, you can just change your mind.
What you believe about yourself isn't the complete picture. What your friends and family believe about you isn't the complete picture. To understand yourself more fully, you must be willing to consider feedback from yourself and those close to you and also from those you dont get along with, and those outside of your immediate circle of concern. This logic likely applies to groups of people too, not just individuals.
Beliefs about ourselves, like all beliefs, are just maps, just predictions we make about the territory - the reality we live in of which we too are a part of. (This doesn't include "beliefs" that someone thinks that they believe but don't actually believe.)
Beliefs are ideas. And in a sense, ideas don't truly belong to any one person or group of people. Your beliefs are not your personal property. They are, in an ethical and practical sense if not a legal sense, public domain as soon as they are shared with others. Anything that you believe, someone else could in theory believe as well. Having a belief that someone else thought of first is not infringing on intellectual property. A specific belief or set of beliefs are not something unique to you. They are not part of who you are, nor how anyone is as a person.
A human being is made of far more than their opinions about things. If you changed your mind about something, even if it was something significant, you would still be you.
John Keats, a famous English romantic-era poet once said,
"...Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things."
If you didn't see the flaw in the above assertion before, I hope you can see it now.
John Keats was wrong. You don't need to fudge the numbers here. You don't need to look away. Life and the Universe won't suddenly cease to be valuable and beautiful just because you look at them closely enough to see their inner workings.
If everything that exists is made of simple, fundamental particles, a multitude of coordinate points in particular locations in the vast multi-dimensional graphing space of the Universe, that doesn't "reduce" the value and beauty of more complex systems of such points. After all, beauty and value are also real phenomena, and they too must be made of the locations and motions of many fundamental particles.
Just because you don't know how the exact positions and directions etc. of every single one of those particles is altogether the same thing as the phenomena you approximate as "value" and "beauty" doesn't mean that the phenomena you approximate as "value" and "beauty" don't exist.
"Ought" is just another "Is". The world we want to live in, the lives we want to have - describing these is just making an assertion about what state of affairs would correspond to better psychological and other kinds of bodily health for human beings and other sentient life. And all of that could be described in terms of the motions and locations of fundamental particles, in theory.
Of course, it's possible that "particles" are just another approximation, another category humans invented, and that the real Universe is mathematically continuous rather than discrete. But if I start talking about that we will probably be here all day.