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.