Shameless Papistry, Fantastical and Paleontological Musings, General Hilarity

Archive for March, 2013

The Problem With Pain

So, one day, around a year ago, I was in my basement, fiddling around, multi-tasking (well, really, being easily distracted is more accurate, but I’ll make myself sound diligent and focused) a number of things like cleaning up trash, working out, organizing my large dinosaur model collection, and futzing with my Sci-fi and Fantasy miniatures. I do these things a lot.

I also happened to be thinking about something completely different from any of those things when I managed to stub my bare toes. I ought to have learned by now to protect them better, but I am from Cain-tuck-ee and therefore must go barefoot in my own home, and other places when permissible. State Law.

This, of course, hurt.

A lot.

Yes. It was this bad.

After snarling some choice incoherent half-swears and staring furiously at my foot for being so clumsy as to injure me, my gaze then burned its way into the old metal bed frame that had caused the damage.

Then suddenly, it hit me. Not the bed, that already happened when it threw itself maliciously into the path of my perfectly-balanced-with-just-the-right-amount-of-hair foot. We had a little discussion. It knows not to mess with me again.

Anyway, I had realized something tremendous. I had been going about my own personal Philosophy of the Mind all wrong.

See, I was having a problem justifying what I had been taught, and felt to be true, all my life, from the first time we ever discussed anatomy in school and beyond.

For the life of me, I could not, and still do not, understand how my nervous system transmits pain.

Please bear with me, as I am fully aware of how thick-headed and uneducated this sounds.

Let us look at our bodies and minds as anyone of the Reductionist Materialist persuasion does, especially in relation to the Universe at large. It starts out with a particle, whether quark or neutrino, or for the sake of the aforementioned neural transmission, electrons or hormones or other such things. Try this on for size:

Every particle in the universe can be represented by a ball. It may have certain properties that allow it to react in specific ways with another ball of a different variety, but it is still, all in all, just a ball. (Please forgive my intentional atrocious, purposeless rhyming. I didn’t want to throw off our timing…and now I’m quoting Yugi-oh the Abridged Series…will my tangents ever cease?)

This ball collides with another ball, and they move off in different directions, or snuggle quietly together and have some cocoa in front of a fire. Maybe even have a weekend of it and wind up with an unplanned Metaphorical Ball Jr. after nine months.

I apologize, I will stop diverting from the point for little humorous asides.

Merida has nothing to do with this post…she’s just sooooo adorable!

Anyway, those two balls collide. Do either of those balls consciously register what has just happened? No. Of course not. Now, keep in mind that everything in the Universe is made of ball-equivalents. Including your brain and the rest of your nervous system. So how, with a neurochemical message of pain traveling along what can be likened to a series of balls bumping into one another in a definite pattern, do you actually feel anything?

Some might say that the physical center of consciousness in your brain recognizes what has occurred. But, whatever part of the brain is doing the sensing is ALSO made of balls bumping together. So by the fact that matter and energy interact the way they do, YOU SHOULD NOT FEEL. EVER.

In fact, neither should you be able to think, or dream, or build a wicked looking castle, or throw your worst enemy off a cliff. Because there should be no YOU. A member of the species Homo Sapiens should do what a computer does, which is react and interact with an environment based upon the mechanisms of its construction. Granted, it might look like it actually possesses a mind, as various persons, who are usually disciples of the misguided Alan Turing, would suggest. They would state that as long as it can pass a Turing Test, which consists of basically convincing a human being (or an insert sentient being here) that the machine is likewise sentient, than the apparatus or contraption my be officially classified as sentient.

I have to admit, that logic is a bit foggy for my tastes.

Dr. John Searle, who remains a practiced materialist to this day, easily rips that concept in half with his Chinese Room thought experiment. I will attempt to sum this up below in plainer language than official sources present.

You stand outside a room. You are fluent in Mandarin Chinese, which is no small feat of linguistics. You are told that there is a man inside that room. The man inside that room has a list of directions in English that do not translate Mandarin, but explain only how to respond to various Mandarin characters thrust under the door. You, speaking Mandarin, decide to show off your knowledge of the language and write down some things in that language and pass them under the door. The man inside uses his set of instructions and responds by placing the results back under the door.

The final effect is that you are fooled into thinking you are having a conversation with a fellow Mandarin-speaker. In reality, your counterpart has no knowledge of the actual exchange taking place. Now, the code for a computer is like the set of instructions the man in the Chinese Room has. No matter how cleverly a computer may appear to respond, it is never actually thinking. It merely follows a pre-ordained set of responses.

This, and the above information I have provided, pretty much demonstrate that there not only might, but MUST be a non-physical component of the mind. This terrifies many Atheists, as Theists like myself of all religions will, and rightly should (especially if they are Catholic, for their Church holds philosophical and theological views that slide in nicely with the information presented here) instantly point to the necessity of a soul for anything we know about sensate and sentient life to make an ounce of sense.

In fact, they become so irate and terrified, that they claim that Science will one day provide them with a Theory of the Mind that can somehow get around the simple, demonstratible fact that no matter how complex a mechanism is, nor how numerous its individual parts, something purely material should never be able to actually feel a darn thing.

This is even more notable in the light of the Theory of Evolution. Mainly because there is not actually any reason for Natural Selection to provide anything with a means to feel hunger, pain, sexual pleasure, or anything else for that matter.

For the second time, bear with me here. On the surface, it sounds like the most asinine statement ever, until you seriously think about it.

I swear I am not this stupid.

If Evolution truly is the process by which various organic compounds are assembled due to inner and outside forces into different compounds until we have the Building Blocks of Life, which then are assembled mechanistically by outside forces, then, as demonstrated, there should never be feeling involved. The most that would happen would be the placement of several trigger mechanisms that caused the production of more copies of the organism, or began gene transfer (what we would call mating), or the ingestion of resources (feeding). There would be no sense of pain, only a reaction to system damage. There would be no seeing the color blue, there would be a reaction to and absorption of data that recorded a certain wavelength of light reflected off of something. I could go on and on, but judging by the fact that we see a blueness of blue, feel the sting of pain, the gnawing of an empty stomach…well, Evolution is either actively working in conjunction with a nonphysical soul, or, well, is complete and utter bunk.

Given the nigh-insurmountable wall of evidence for Evolution’s existence, I should think it were not bunk.

And before everyone gets up in arms and begins citing thousands of research papers showing the effects of hormones, the nervous system, and various physical stimuli on thought and consciousness, have no fear. I never said the mind was not influenced by any of these things. There is definitely a physical process that occurs in the brain that affects thought. However, I leave that to more talented men than myself to sort out the nitty-gritty of. That is the realm of neuroscientists and psychologists, and I travel that land only on casual visits.