Theodore asked:

Our lungs do not produce the oxygen which we find necessary to breathe, so why should anyone think it unusual that our brain does not produce consciousness which we find necessary to think?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I am totally gobsmacked by this question, Theodore. Wow. So many possible lines of inquiry here.

Our lungs don’t produce the oxygen we need, as you well know. But if they did, their function could surely not be to oxygenate the blood. Because then it wouldn’t be necessary to breathe at all. We could produce all our own oxygen through the process of chemical reduction without having to take any from the outside world. Assuming that the oxygen is used to produce energy from food through the process of oxidation, fundamental laws of chemistry and thermodynamics would in tatters.

A more plausible theory is that human beings and animal life in general were created by the plant world in order to produce all the carbon dioxide it needs for photosynthesis. No fundamental laws broken here, but it would somewhat upset our view that human beings are higher than plant life. (It would make an interesting variation on the Matrix scenario of human beings as Duracell batteries designed to keep the computer world up and running.)

This is speculation, right? And as much as we know about human physiology and biochemistry, so little do we know about the nature of consciousness, how it ‘acts’ and how it is ‘produced’. So the field is open for any theory that sounds even a little bit plausible.

The Ancient Greeks were there first: the ‘Air’ of Anaximenes, the ‘Nous’ of Anaxagoras, and Xenophanes’ ‘One God’ who ‘sees all’ and ‘shakes all things by the thought of his mind’. The invisible substance that pervades all things has purpose. It is mind-like. Anaxagoras offers the most interesting version of this hypothesis. Unlike air, Nous is everywhere, it even pervades rock and solid metal. When Aristotle formed the metaphysical theory we know as ‘Hylomorphism’ to account for the ultimate nature of existence and change, it was the thought of Anaxagoras, out of all the Presocratics, that most influenced him.

So much for history. I take your idea to be this: the brain doesn’t ‘produce’ consciousness as material monists foolishly believe. Rather, its function is to interact with consciousness which is already ‘out there’. One well-know version of that story is the mind-body dualism of Descartes. The tiny pineal gland in the brain is the place, Descartes thought, where mental substance is able to move or be moved by the ‘animal spirits’ thus producing speech, action and perception. The problems with Descartes’ mind-body interaction theory are well known, so I won’t repeat them here.

However, here’s another theory, much closer to the Greeks, that you might like. Nous is everywhere. In the beginning, its powers were limited because it had so little to work with. All Nous can do, the sum total of its powers, is to alter probabilities, to make the relatively improbable probable. And so it was that the massive improbability of matter, energy and space appearing from nothing was conquered.

It was Nous that first nudged basic protein molecules together to produce molecules of DNA, that even today maintains the balanced processes in every living cell (a phenomenon that biologists have yet to fully understand), that in tiny stages pushed evolution all the way up the steep gradient of improbability ultimately to create human life. By manipulating quantum effects in the brain, you and I become its eyes and ears. We are the means to its end, which was simply, all along, to overcome its blindness and its solitude.

In the beginning Nous didn’t know what it was doing. It was not in any way ‘conscious’. Certainly not a ‘god’. It was just blindly thrashing about. But, gradually, as more and more order was created, it discovered its ‘purpose’. Through tiny steps, it transformed itself into the Demiurge of nature.

Basically, all I’ve done is rehash the doctrine of the Upanishads with added baroque or filagree to give the impression of being ‘scientific’. In the words of Alan Watts, ‘We are all It.’ Like any theory, it deserves to be considered as possibly true. Why not? At this moment in our history, no-one knows ‘the truth’ — if there is such a thing. So if this is what you would like to believe, no-one has the right to contradict you.

Rehan asked:

If human have an innate will to survive, shown by the fear of death, does this not prove there is no afterlife? Why would human fear death if there was something after it?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

People live from day to day, nourishing their hopes and dreams, and also fearful of bad things that could happen to them, like illness or injury. Or death. Experience — for most of us, this means watching the TV news — teaches us about all the good or bad things that could happen. Like winning fifty million on the Lottery, or being brutally raped and murdered by terrorists, and everything in between.

Is that it? Not at all. Not a bit of it. The human mind and frame are limited in their capacity for happiness and pleasure. There is only so much you can take before you are completely, and blissfully sated. For me, freshly fried fish in golden batter with chips and lashings of salt and vinegar goes a long way towards achieving that goal, but everyone has his or her own preference.

As for the bad, that’s a different story. Because there is no limit to how bad things can get. That’s how the famous mathematician Pascal was able to persuade himself that religion is the only rational option. Even the slightest chance of eternal damnation is sufficient argument for treading the strict path of righteousness, which for him meant Christianity.

You’ll find plenty of discussion on the Internet of ‘Pascal’s Wager’ as it is called, many complaining that Pascal’s argument is less than compelling. Why should the slightest, slightest chance of something bad bother me? The problem is that people seem to have such feeble imaginations. George Bernard Shaw, in his play Saint Joan, with more than a bit of tongue in cheek describes Hell as place where people are drunk all the time, a never-ending party for the wicked. Then again, if you think about it, the impossibility of ever getting the chance to sober up is a pretty hellish prospect.

Today, Hell has become glamourised. Hell is cool. Watching TV episodes of Lucifer or Constantine, it seems the human taste for sexy devils and demons is nothing short of voracious.

By stark contrast, hidden away on the Pathways web site is this description of Hell excerpted from the Bahar-e-Shariat:

“The Kafirs (infidels) in Hell will have to drink boiling oil-water, after which their bowels and intestines and stomach will be break into pieces. The consumed water will then come out of their stomach like curry and will flow down to their feet. The skins of their bodies will become thick up to 42 yards. Their tongues will be hanging out of mouths up to a length of two miles. The passerby will walk trampling upon these tongues.” (Six of the Best: Glyn Hughes)

In the original text, the account is a lot longer and even more fearsome. The description of Paradise from the same book is, for me, far less convincing. As I said before, there is only so much pleasure a man (or woman) can take before one is sated.

I don’t actually believe that I will be going to Heaven or Hell. But what’s belief got to do with it? What does it matter whether you believe or disbelieve? Those are just things people say. What people say ultimately doesn’t mean a thing. Truth be told, death as the absolute end of everything, death with no afterlife, isn’t so fearsome. If you’ve reached the absolute end then you’re safe. You should be afraid to be alive.

Tim asked:

I was interested  in a specific response to a question that was previously answered by Geoffrey Klempner. He says:

“There’s no other way to put it: materialists believe in magic. Something magical happens when sufficiently many pulleys and cogs and rubber bands are assembled together. YOU come into existence. How utterly ridiculous!”

In response to this I am thinking yes that it is “magical”. I think how does a “you” come into existence through a physical process, whose “you” (THE YOU? The one you of the universe living all different lives spontaneously through different subjective experiences?). If this line of reasoning does not work, I am interested in how physical processes can create an “observer” that believes he is the “owner” of these experiences. What is the “owner” of these physical processes? Is it a portion of the brain, literally the brain matter working in conjunction with the rest of the brain, and body, that forms this conception of being a person with legs and arms and a face but in reality I am this small cluster of brain cells being self aware and the illusion is that I am a person when in reality I am the portion of self aware brain cells extrapolating an identity of a person that has a face and hopes and dreams?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Yes, physicalism now gets a hammering by some people as a “ridiculous” explanation of the mind.

It seems only yesterday (excuse the old-timer musing) that dualism was ridiculed by Ryle as the “ghost in the machine”, referring to the intractability of explaining how an immaterial mind could possibly interact with a physical body making it move. Descartes struggled with it, suggesting interaction occurred in the pineal gland, but he failed to explain how it was done or why it should be easier in one bit of the body rather than in the whole body. Modern attempts at explanation invoke chaos theory, stochastic processes, quantum effects in dendrites and so forth, but none succeeds, or indeed can succeed in my view. Substance dualism is out, slain by the interaction problem.

As for physicalism, the enthusiast for it says that the “miracle” view of consciousness is much the same as life was viewed in the 19th century — how could an assembly of interacting dead chemicals possibly be ALIVE, how ridiculous. But we now know that life just is integrated assemblies of chemicals exhibiting overall stability, And so, when we understand the details, we will likewise grasp how mind arises from integrated electrochemical processes. I don’t buy this argument. Life is a complex physical process, I agree, but mind or consciousness is radically different from any purely physical processes. And another point worth stating. How can we expect physics to explain mind when the mind aspect of the world is excluded from physics by design? When Galileo started modern physics he made it clear that the subject was a mathematical treatment of the primary qualities of the world, such as mass, charge and motion, but that colour, sound and other sensations and feelings were in the mind and not the concern of physics. If he time-travelled to the present he would be surprised that, having excluded mind from physics, we now expect physics to explain mind. So I’m with Klempner here — physicalism fails.

So, if dualism and monism (physical) fail, what might work? I want to quickly reject two views. First, monism (mental) or idealism — all that exists is mind and ideas, material things are really ideas in minds (including God’s). This is wonderfully defended by Berkeley, but as Hume said, these views “admit of no answer and produce no conviction”, and I’ve never met anybody who believes idealism. The second view I want to reject is eliminativism — the idea that consciousness doesn’t exist, it’s an illusion. When you look into this you find that the proponents are not really saying consciousness doesn’t exist, they are saying that it isn’t as we naively think it is e.g. we think we see a rich detailed picture of the room in front of us, whereas really our eyes continually move over the scene so we are conscious of only one bit at a time, and the whole-picture view is an illusion.

So if dualism, physicalism, idealism and eliminativism are out, what’s left? Panpsychism of course, the idea that the fundamental units of the world (be they quarks, strings, quantum fields or whatever) have a mental as well as a physical aspect. Physics, as I’ve said, deals only with the relational or extrinsic properties (mass, charge, spin etc) and has nothing to say about intrinsic, nonrelational properties. And it’s the latter which, in suitable aggregation and integration, as in brains, produce consciousness in humans, some animals, and eventually computers I suppose. Be aware, the literature here is full of fancy names and fine distinctions within this viewpoint — neutral monism, Russellian monism, panprotopsychism, constitutive panpsychism, and so forth. Don’t get bogged down. The view is that the fundamental elements of the world have physical attributes which aggregate to make matter, and mental attributes which aggregate to make minds. Naturally, there is the question about how all the micromentals combine to make a unified mind.  However we seem happy to accept that the microphysicals can combine to make highly structured entities such as trees, bees and chimpanzees rather than just heaps of atoms, so no doubt the combination problem for minds will yield to science in due course.

As regards your question about your SELF being in a special brain module (so that if it were damaged YOU would be destroyed and the rest of you would would live out life as a zombie), there is no evidence of this. All evidence suggests a non-localized SELF distributed between brain, body and environment, constructed from babyhood onward, but developed throughout life, a narrative you and others tell about yourself, an insubstantial thing (of course), a virtual entity or fiction if you like, but one we live and love.

Raheem asked:

If the universe and everything in it is consisted of matter, are my thoughts consisted of matter also? And if so, is anything and everything really possible? Does everything have a certain equation to make into reality? And if not, what are my thoughts, and why are Numbers infinite?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Materialism is a theory as old as philosophy itself — or at least Western philosophy. The Presocratic philosophers Leucippus and Democritus first proposed a picture of the universe as consisting entirely of ‘atoms and the void’. Human thought and perception are nothing but movements of atoms. (Aristotle in his critique of atomism remarks that thought atoms were held to be quick moving and slippery, like the mercury that Daedalus was fabled to have used to make his statues self-moving. Aristotle thought that was a hoot.)

The true diehard materialist takes the nominalist side in the nominalism-realism debate. In Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), nominalism transmogrified into the ‘meaning is use’ theory, giving nominalism a whole new lease of life. Words are no longer just labels we pin on material things — always a rather implausible theory — but rather counters in the ‘language game’, and there are many games besides the ‘label-pinning’ game. Contemporary truth conditional semantics is the heir to Wittgenstein, dovetailing neatly into a worldview where all that exists is ultimately the objects of physics.

‘And if so, is anything and everything really possible?’ If you mean, can materialism account for everything we talk about — not just thought, but meaning, truth, possibility and necessity, numbers and abstract objects — the materialists would say, yes. They would say that, wouldn’t they?

‘And, if not… why are numbers infinite?’ It was the mathematical Intuitionist Brouwer whose 1928 Vienna lecture first provoked Wittgenstein to return to philosophy. Specifically, the problem of grasping propositions about the infinite led the Intuitionists — under the influence of Kant — to deny the validity of the Classical laws of double negation elimination and excluded middle. Numbers and numerical formulae are ‘free creations’ of the finite human mind rather than timeless Platonic entities to which mathematical propositions correspond.

I would have thought that a diehard materialist, on the other hand, ought to have no truck with infinities of any sort. If the material universe is infinite, then you could fit an infinite number of guests into an hotel with an infinite number of rooms, all occupied, just by getting each guest to move from room number x to room number 2x. (The thought experiment is known as Hilbert’s Paradox.)

Then again, if you think of a universal formula as a ‘rule’ which mathematical language users ‘follow’, then it seems you can have your cake and eat it. You can say that a universal formula is ‘true’ for all numbers (i.e. proved, justified) while at the same time denying that the rules we follow are ‘rails stretching to infinity’ as the Platonist believes.

‘And if not, what are my thoughts…?’ You don’t have be able to say what something IS, in order to be pretty sure what it is NOT. So, frankly, I don’t know. However, my present view inclines towards the notion that thought is mental action, and action is prior to everything else in the universe. The ultimate reality. What ultimately IS life, your life, my life, but the things one does, and the things the world does in response? The rest is just things ‘we’ say in our common discourse (as Heraclitus would have remarked). On this view, materialism is as unthinkable as solipsism.

— Raheem, I don’t know if this answers your question or not. (I wasn’t altogether sure what you were getting at.) I hope it helps, at any rate.

Dzmeb asked:

To act out of duty, is it necessarily to act well?

Answer by Paul Fagan

In order to answer this, I would hold that some philosophers are of the opinion that one may do one’s duty without necessarily acting well. I will attempt to demonstrate this by using an example inspired by the philosophical creed of deontology.

Now, imagine you are in Calais and have just bought some lovely croissants from a boulangerie. Then, you come across a starving refugee in the street. You give a croissant to the refugee and thereby save her life. Here, I would think that most people would agree that saving another’s life is acting out of duty.

On the face of it, you have acted well. But the question remains, have you actually acted well? To explain, if you gave a croissant to the refugee because you felt sorry for the refugee and it makes you personally feel better, then you have really used the refugee as a ‘means to an end’: you have used the refugee in a process that gratifies your own needs.  In essence, you have acted well but only because your self-interest accidently coincided with acting well.

For some philosophers, it would be better if you intended to consistently treat others as ‘ends’ in their own right: in the scenario described, this would occur if you appreciated refugees as persons, wished for them to flourish, and donated a croissant to contribute to this. Therefore, for some, treating people as ‘ends’ and acting accordingly would constitute living ‘well’. That said, it should be noted that this reasoning has its detractors as those adhering to this sort of reasoning are often criticised for being impractically rigid, not providing a theory sophisticated enough to prioritise between differing situations, and also attempting to distance persons from their intuitions and emotions.

Overall, an enormous amount of literature has been written on this type of thinking and the most perfunctory surf of the internet will uncover many situations of this ilk with accompanying discussions. However, if this has whetted your appetite for such philosophising, then the reader may like to visit the entry for ‘Deontological Ethics’ in Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy (

In concluding, I would hope that a point has been made quite clearly: that according to some philosophers, one may act dutifully whilst not necessarily acting well.

Tim asked:

My name is Timothy Fuller. I am a Philosophy and Economics B.A Graduate. I currently run my own business and continue to learn and research and aspire for Graduate Studies. Thank you for taking my question.

I am interested in the question of how physical inanimate objects can create an experience of being and living as something in real time. To take it further, how can the ‘electrical storm’, firing synapses etc, all physical create something it is to be something to be that INDIVIDUAL. To take further what would we say we are as an individual? We are not the cells of our bodies or any individual atom. We are the thing that experiences. What is that ‘thing’?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Well, Tim, as Morpheus says to Neo, ‘I know exactly what you mean.’ It’s absurd, ain’t it, the very idea that the person called ‘Tim’, as an ‘individual’, just IS some physical thing, an object in the world, physical processes happening, causes and effects, all building up to make YOU?

It’s good that you took a joint degree. At least you’ve learned something useful. To pass Philosophy, you had to submit to ideological brainwashing, as all undergrads do. You learned what a ‘good argument’ or a ‘bad argument’ is, and how to tell the difference. You were punished (with bad marks) if you wrote essays that didn’t conform to the accepted view of a ‘good’ essay in philosophy, that is to say, an essay developed from, based upon the ‘correct’ assumptions and argued according to the accepted canons of ‘good’ argument.

And one of the things you were taught is that materialism — the materialist view of the self — is a perfectly reasonable theory, and that any arguments based on your subjective sense or intuition that ‘it just can’t be true’ are irrelevant, or just an expression of your mental incapacity. I know how you feel, because I went through this too.

First, let’s get rid of the aura around ‘electricity’. (‘Elastic trickery,’ as I remember it being called in some TV comedy program.) Ever since Galvani succeed in making frog legs twitch when he applied a current, electricity and electrical processes have had an inexpressible mystique. Electricity goes its own way invisibly up and down silver wires and round and round printed circuits. Nothing moves, yet everything is happening.

I was once the proud owner of an original Sony radio with nine transistors. Nine! A marvel of the modern age. That was the 60s. (Wish I’d kept it, it would be worth a fortune on eBay.) Today, an ordinary desktop computer contains hundreds of millions of transistors. The mind boggles.

Get rid of all that. Put it out of your mind. Numbers are just numbers. Imagine instead that the thing you call ‘you’ was made of wooden cogs and pulleys, twisted rubber bands, paper, plasticine et cetera. It’s long been an accepted axiom of AI that the ‘program’ is all that matters.

Neural networks are the latest thing, but they are just a minor variant. It was always suspected that computers could do a better job of programming themselves than we can do, using our limited human knowledge. Hence the remarkable success of AlphaZero. If the supercomputer running AlphaZero was made of wood and rubber, etc. how big would it have to be? How long would it take to calculate a chess move? As I said, numbers are irrelevant.

I am not going to repeat arguments I’ve given in other posts on this topic. (Just do a search through these pages.) There’s no other way to put it: materialists believe in magic. Something magical happens when sufficiently many pulleys and cogs and rubber bands are assembled together. YOU come into existence. How utterly ridiculous!


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