They Really Are Different From the Rest of Us

If you’re like me, you often wonder whether right-wing media people and politicians believe the nonsense they pass on to the rest of us. For instance, did they really think Hillary Clinton’s email server was a horrendous, disqualifying breach of national security? Or that the FBI, one of the most conservative agencies in the federal government, plotted to elect her, despite all evidence to the contrary (like the fact that they helped elect her opponent)?

Granted, some “conservatives” are sufficiently stupid or ignorant to buy that kind of crap. But the people who run Fox News or the major right-wing websites are smarter and better-informed than the average right-wing boob who watches Hannity or listens to Limbaugh.

Brian Beutler, one of the best people writing about politics today, argues that the purveyors of right-wing nonsense really are different from the rest of us:

Outside of the specific American context, the word “liberal” describes … a philosophical approach to organizing society [that reflects] a common commitment to basic Enlightenment-era ideals like equality, democracy, and empiricism [i.e. evidence].

In recent years, political science tells us, the two American parties have polarized, and the polarization has been asymmetric. Republicans have become more conservative faster than Democrats have become more progressive.

It is increasingly clear that asymmetric polarization is the wrong metaphor for what has happened in American politics. To say the parties are asymmetrical is to imply that they’re fundamentally similar, but that one has become distorted in some way—that while Democrats and Republicans are still committed to basic Founding values, Republicans are rapidly adopting more extreme policy prescriptions. They’ve changed, but they can change back.

Whether or not that was ever true, it clearly no longer is. The parties aren’t two different animals of the same species. They have speciated [become different species].

Democratic politicians, liberal activists, and journalists have different purposes and respond to different incentives, but they are all liberal in that global sense. Two decades after Newt Gingrich redefined what it meant to be a Republican, it is clear that Republican politicians, conservative activists, and the right-wing media have become adherents to a fundamentally different political tradition.

Most conservatives are not aware of this anymore than liberal people walk through life meditating regularly on their historical connections to John Locke and John Dewey. But some conservatives are perfectly conscious that they’ve rejected the small-l liberal canon.

Paul Ryan is an Ayn Rand acolyte. In his political biography of Steve Bannon, Bloomberg writer Joshua Green details how Bannon became enthralled with the anti-modernist thinking of philosophers like René Guénon and Julius Evola, the latter of whom helped create the intellectual foundation of Italian fascism. Bannon is an admirer of the great propagandists of totalitarian Europe, including Leni Riefenstahl and Sergei Eisenstein, who used information instrumentally to mobilize (rather than inform) … Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. For years now, Bannon and his acolytes in right-wing media have made no secret of their desire to destroy mainstream journalism as a vocation in America. His understudy Matthew Boyle has boasted that his organization’s goal is nothing less than “the full destruction and elimination of the entire mainstream media,” through the “weaponization of information.”

Bannon has been banished from the Trump White House and driven from his chairmanship of Breitbart for saying mean things about the president to reporters, but his imprint on the modern conservative media is enormous and undeniable…. It is impossible to watch Fox News in prime time, or Devin Nunes at the helm of the House Intelligence Committee, or Rush Limbaugh bellowing at dittoheads, and not conclude that they have done the same, consciously or otherwise.

Mr. Beutler sees here a crucial lesson for the “mainstream” (i.e. reality-based) media:

The job of the mainstream media isn’t to cast judgment on people with different value systems, but journalists can’t do their jobs well if they aren’t aware that the value systems of mainstream journalism and American conservatism are different and in conflict. It should be perfectly possible to apply the neutral rules of modern journalism to both American political parties while accepting that Democrats (and journalists and scientists) descend from the Enlightenment tradition, while Republicans (and their allies in conservative media) descend from a different, illiberal tradition—and that this makes the parties behave in different ways.

It is why the right has felt comfortable spending the past weeks fabricating whole-cloth conspiracy theories about the FBI and setting about to cajole and intimidate impartial journalists into taking the theories seriously—or at least into offering liars big platforms to spread disinformation. Journalists have spent decades responding to this kind of manipulation with varying levels of appeasement, hoping to escape the curse of the “liberal” epithet. They should try instead to embrace their own particular kind of liberalism instead, and let their bad-faith critics scream into the void.

Advertisements

My Country, ‘Tis of Thee

I was thinking about writing a post based on recent statements by Sen. Orrin Hatch (Republican, Utah) and Sen. Charles Grassley (Republican, Iowa), but an actual writer beat me to it.

From Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

With Republicans well on their way to passing a dramatic overhaul of the tax code, they have presented to the public a sweeping, comprehensive vision not just of what taxes should look like, but of what government is there for, what our obligations are to one another, and even how each of us should think about our value as human beings. This is a moment of uncommon clarity.

…. Let’s start with Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who made this comment on the estate tax:

“I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” Grassley said, “as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

Right now, the first $5.5 million of any estate is not subject to the tax. Because of that, fewer than one in 500 estates owes any tax at all. So Grassley is saying that 99.8 percent of Americans lead contemptible lives of waste and folly, while only that remaining sliver of the extra-wealthy have shown the virtue that should win their heirs the ability not to pay taxes on the fortunes bequeathed to them. The Senate bill would double the tax’s exemption, while the House bill would eliminate the tax entirely; depending on how the final version turns out, Eric Trump may finally be free of the fear that he’ll have to pay taxes on his inheritance.

Now let’s turn to Utah’s Orrin Hatch, who explained why, despite his support of a bill offering trillions of dollars in tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations, we absolutely must start slashing the social safety net immediately:

“I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger, and expect the federal government to do everything.”

… There isn’t much political advantage in saying that if you die with less than $5.5 million in assets, like nearly all Americans do, that means you were lazy and self-indulgent, while only the wealthy have proven their moral worth by the size of their bank accounts. So when someone says something like that, you can be pretty sure he’s expressing his actual beliefs….

Those are value judgments, rooted in how Republicans tend to view the worth of different people. They operate on the presumption that the economic system is fair, and the results of that system provide a measure of different people’s virtue. If you’re rich — even if you got rich by choosing the right parents — they presume that you deserve to be taxed as lightly as possible, while if you’re in need of the kinds of help we offer low-income people, then it reflects a moral failing. If we give you any help at all, it should be as grudging as possible, accompanied by stern lectures and even rituals of humiliation like drug tests.

Their tax bill, and their upcoming assault on the safety net, will weave these principles more deeply into our laws. And these principles are their real rationale; ignore all the practical claims they make about the explosion of economic growth these tax cuts will supposedly produce, and how the benefits will trickle down to everyone, and how it will all pay for itself. Those arguments are transparently bogus. A recent survey of 38 prominent economists found that only one said the tax bill would significantly increase growth…

Confronted with this comprehensive debunking of their practical claims, Republicans are undeterred and undaunted. That’s because they’re driven by a moral imperative, one that says that no matter what effect cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations might have on the economy, it’s just the right thing to do. It rewards the virtuous, and you can tell who the virtuous are by how much money they have. If you’re asking why they wrote the bill the way they did, that’s just about all you need to know.

Meanwhile, our law-and-order president (sexual predator D. Trump) has endorsed former judge Roy Moore, who will probably join Grassley and Hatch in the Senate later this month:

DQNlvbQW0AEcCWY

My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing….

This, That and the Other Thing

There are few places as forlorn as a resort town on a chilly, cloudy, damp, out of season weekday afternoon. Thus, Virginia Beach, Virginia, last week:

20171109_145916

20171109_150115

But let’s move on.

Paul Waldman writes about “The GOP’s Baffling Decision to Raise Taxes on Millions of Americans” at The Week.

If there’s one thing we thought we could count on in this crazy world, it’s that Republicans will never, ever, ever support a tax increase. It wasn’t always this way — Ronald Reagan, who to hear some people tell it practically walked the Earth without sin, actually raised taxes multiple times — but today there may be no more foundational belief to the GOP than the principle that taxes must come down, everywhere and always.

Nevertheless, “the GOP is right now rallying around a bill that will raise taxes on tens of millions of Americans.” It certainly is strange. One part of the explanation, however, is that Republicans aren’t very good at this governing thing. Another part is that they’re so eager to cut taxes for rich people and corporations, they’re willing to antagonize millions of voters and lie about what they’re doing.

As a partial antidote to the above, consider reading all about “The Relentless Honesty of Ludwig Wittgenstein”. Ian Ground presents an excellent overview of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, both early and late, at The Times Literary Supplement.

Vote As If You Are On a Mission from God

Most people thought Hillary Clinton was going to win last year. Most people thought the Orange Menace was unqualified to be President. Since they wanted to hold the next president to a high standard, media people gave inordinate attention to Clinton’s email server management, the Goldman Sachs speeches and the Clinton Foundation. FBI Director James Comey probably assumed Clinton would win so maybe he figured it would be okay to give the Republican a boost. I’m convinced lots of people voted for her main opponent or didn’t vote at all because they were sure he would never be president.

Imagine, however, that everyone registered to vote in the United States received a very special message before the election:

Hello, [your name here], this is the Voice of God. I have decided that your individual vote will determine who will be the next president. Forget the polls. Forget the other voters. Forget whether you live in a swing state. Forget the Electoral College. You and you alone will choose the next president. You are the only person receiving this message. You must think very carefully and then go vote. You must choose one of the candidates and whoever you choose will win the election. I will make it happen. It is a sure thing. Keep in mind that your decision will affect people throughout the world, so choose wisely. I am counting on you, [your name here], to choose the best person for the job. Perhaps I should add that you do not want to disappoint Us. Thank you and have a nice day.

And everyone who got the message believed they heard the Voice of God, thought about their decision (and a few other things) very seriously and then cast their vote.

Who would have won the election? Would Clinton have received the additional 78,000 votes out of the 14 million cast in three states she needed to win the Electoral College?

I believe she would have, although that may be wishful thinking. The point I’m trying to make is that we should all take voting very seriously. It makes a big difference who is elected, especially since the Republican Party has moved further and further to the right.

One problem, of course, is that the Republicans have successfully manipulated our electoral system in ways that stop or discourage people from voting (voter suppression) or dilute the impact of their votes (gerrymandering). But the other big problem is that too many people simply don’t bother to vote. Unfortunately, the mystery isn’t why they don’t bother. The mystery is why anyone does.

That’s because, given the size of our electorate and the arcane rules we follow, nobody should think their individual vote will matter. In anything but the smallest local elections, the chances of one person’s vote making a difference are infinitesimal. Understanding that, most voters see voting as consequence-free. That partly explains why so few of us bother. It also partly explains who won in November. Why not vote for a third-party candidate who has no chance of winning if it won’t make any difference who you vote for?

Philosophers and social scientists call this problem the “paradox of voting” (or the “Downs paradox” in honor of an economist who studied it):

The paradox of voting … is that for a rational, self-interested voter, the costs of voting will normally exceed the expected benefits. Because the chance of exercising the pivotal vote (i.e., in an otherwise tied election) is minuscule, … the expected benefits of voting are less than the costs.

The issue was noted by Nicolas de Condorcet in 1793 when he stated, “In single-stage elections, where there are a great many voters, each voter’s influence is very small. It is therefore possible that the citizens will not be sufficiently interested [to vote]” and “… we know that this interest [which voters have in an election] must decrease with each individual’s [i.e. voter’s] influence on the election and as the number of voters increases.” In 1821, Hegel made a similar observation: “As for popular suffrage, it may be further remarked that especially in large states it leads inevitably to electoral indifference, since the casting of a single vote is of no significance where there is a multitude of electors.”  [Wikipedia]

There are ways to get people to vote even though their individual votes won’t matter. You can make voting mandatory (like in Australia). You can try to make voting fun (how about a free doughnut or one of those “I VOTED” stickers?). Or you could pay people to vote. 

That last option might be considered bribery, but it has been considered as government policy. The city of Los Angeles and the state of Arizona have both looked at turning elections into lotteries. One lucky voter would win a million dollars! I don’t know if anyone has thought about simply giving cash to each voter, but that would work too.

One problem with these approaches, however, is that it would encourage voting by “low information” voters, people who don’t know much about the issues or the candidates. They would only bother to vote because they were afraid of being punished or interested in a possible reward. That could be a problem, but it would be a problem worth having, since getting everyone to vote would have the biggest effect on young people and poor people. Those are the two groups least likely to vote today. Getting more of them to vote would have a big effect and a positive one.

Of course, we could simply appeal to everyone’s sense of civic duty. As citizens of a representative democracy, we are supposed to learn about the candidates and issues and then make a responsible choice. That’s how I think of voting. It’s a ritual I perform because I live in a democracy. In other words, I know my vote won’t have an effect but I do it anyway, because it feels like it’s the right thing to do. It makes me feel good to cast a ballot.

It’s clear that I don’t know how to solve this problem. I don’t know how to make our democracy more representative by getting more people to vote. I suppose it’s (very remotely) possible that God will trick everyone into voting next time by sending each of us a personal message like the one above. What I do know is that our upcoming elections are extremely important, given the lopsided amount of power the Republicans now have. Maybe the best thing to do, therefore, is to encourage everyone you know, especially the sane ones, to register and vote every chance they get. Sure, as individuals, it will be a waste of time. But as a group it will be one of the best things we can do. Let’s all pay attention and vote, and encourage others to do the same, as if we’re all on a mission from God. Need I add that it’s a mission to elect more Democrats?

For further encouragement, here’s yesterday’s column by Colbert King in The Washington Post. His conclusion:

The midterm 2018 elections can be Judgment Day for Trump. And dress rehearsal for 2020. Fume and fuss, talk back to the television, kick the can, call Trump names, vent to your heart’s content. All that changes nothing. Also probably ruins your health. What can make a difference? The ballot. Vote, vote, vote.

Spinoza, the God-Intoxicated Man

He is known as Spinoza, although he might just as well have been known as Espinoza or Espinosa. The de Espinosa family of Sephardic Jews originated in Spain before emigrating to Portugal and then Amsterdam to escape religious persecution. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam as Benedito de Espinosa, referred to himself as Benedict de Spinoza in his Latin writings, and is now often called Baruch Spinoza. He lived in the 17th century and was a truly great philosopher.

What follows is from “Why Spinoza Still Matters”, written by Prof. Stephen Nadler for Aeon:

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance…. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests.

Nadler then gives an excellent summary of Spinoza’s basic position: 

Spinoza’s philosophy is founded upon a rejection of the God that informs the Abrahamic religions. His God lacks all the psychological and moral characteristics of a transcendent, providential deity. The Deus of Spinoza’s philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics (1677), is not a kind of person. It has no beliefs, hopes, desires or emotions. Nor is Spinoza’s God a good, wise and just lawgiver who will reward those who obey its commands and punish those who go astray. For Spinoza, God is Nature, and all there is is Nature (his phrase is Deus sive Natura, ‘God or Nature’). Whatever is exists in Nature, and happens with a necessity imposed by the laws of Nature. There is nothing beyond Nature and there are no departures from Nature’s order – miracles and the supernatural are an impossibility.

There are no values in Nature. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad, nor does Nature or anything in Nature exist for the sake of some purpose. Whatever is, just is. Early in the Ethics, Spinoza says that ‘all the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end; for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God’.

Spinoza is often labelled a ‘pantheist’, but ‘atheist’ is a more appropriate term. Spinoza does not divinise Nature. Nature is not the object of worshipful awe or religious reverence. ‘The wise man,’ he says, ‘seeks to understand Nature, not gape at it like a fool’. The only appropriate attitude to take toward God or Nature is a desire to know it through the intellect.

The elimination of a providential God helps to cast doubt on what Spinoza regards as one of the most pernicious doctrines promoted by organised religions: the immortality of the soul and the divine judgment it will undergo in some world-to-come. If a person believes that God will reward the virtuous and punish the vicious, one’s life will be governed by the emotions of hope and fear: hope that one is among the elect, fear that one is destined for eternal damnation. A life dominated by such irrational passions is, in Spinoza’s terms, a life of ‘bondage’ rather than a life of rational freedom.

People who are led by passion rather than reason are easily manipulated by ecclesiastics. This is what so worried Spinoza in the late 1660s, as the more repressive and intolerant elements in the Reformed Church gained influence in Holland. It remains no less a threat to enlightened, secular democracy today, as religious sectarians exercise a dangerous influence on public life.

In order to undermine such religious meddling in civic affairs and personal morality, Spinoza attacked the belief in the afterlife of an immortal soul. For Spinoza, when you’re dead, you’re dead. There might be a part of the human mind that is ‘eternal’. The truths of metaphysics, mathematics, etc, that one acquires during this lifetime and that might now belong to one’s mind will certainly remain once one has passed away – they are, after all, eternal truths – but there is nothing personal about them….

The more one knows about Nature, and especially about oneself as a human being, the more one is able to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to navigate the obstacles to happiness and well-being that a person living in Nature necessarily faces. The result of such wisdom is peace of mind: one is less subject to the emotional extremes that ordinarily accompany the gains and losses that life inevitably brings, and one no longer dwells anxiously on what is to come after death. As Spinoza eloquently puts it, ‘the free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death’.

Spinoza’s ideas concerning organized religion and the Bible were remarkable for the 17th century. Nadler continues:

Clergy seeking to control the lives of citizens have another weapon in their arsenal. They proclaim that there is one and only one book that will reveal the word of God and the path toward salvation and that they alone are its authorised interpreters. In fact, Spinoza claims, ‘they ascribe to the Holy Spirit whatever their wild fancies have invented’.

One of Spinoza’s more famous, influential and incendiary doctrines concerns the origin and status of Scripture. The Bible, Spinoza argues in the Theological-Political Treatise, was not literally authored by God. God or Nature is metaphysically incapable of proclaiming or dictating, much less writing, anything. Scripture is not ‘a message for mankind sent down by God from heaven’. Rather, it is a very mundane document. Texts from a number of authors of various … backgrounds, writing at different points over a long stretch of time and in differing historical and political circumstances, were passed down through generations in copies after copies after copies.

Finally, a selection of these writings was put together (with some arbitrariness, Spinoza insists) in the Second Temple period, most likely under the editorship of Ezra, who was only partially able to synthesise his sources and create a single work from them. This imperfectly composed collection was itself subject to the changes that creep into a text during a transmission process of many centuries. The Bible as we have it is simply a work of human literature, and a rather ‘faulty, mutilated, adulterated, and inconsistent’ one at that. It is a mixed-breed by its birth and corrupted by its descent and preservation, a jumble of texts by different hands, from different periods and for different audiences.

Spinoza supplements his theory of the human origins of Scripture with an equally deflationary account of its authors. The prophets were not especially learned individuals. They did not enjoy a high level of education or intellectual sophistication. They certainly were not philosophers or physicists or astronomers. There are no truths about nature or the cosmos to be found in their writings…. Neither are they a source of metaphysical or even theological truths. The prophets often had naïve, even philosophically false beliefs about God.

Spinoza held that “there are no values in Nature” and “nothing is intrinsically good or bad”, but, according to Nadler, that didn’t stop him from believing that the Bible conveyed a crucial message:

[The Bible’s authors] were … morally superior individuals with vivid imaginations, and so there is a truth to be gleaned from all of Scripture, one that comes through loud and clear and in a non-mutilated form. The ultimate teaching of Scripture, whether the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Gospels, is in fact a rather simple one: practice justice and loving-kindness to your fellow human beings.

That basic moral message is the upshot of all the commandments and the lesson of all the stories of Scripture, surviving whole and unadulterated through all the differences of language and all the copies, alterations, corruptions and scribal errors that have crept into the text over the centuries.

Such were the views that got Spinoza labeled as a “renegade Jew … from Hell” and, more recently, as a “God-intoxicated man”.

Consciousness As Mental, As Physical

It’s been argued that a scientist who grew up in a black and white room and never saw the color red could learn everything there is to know about the physics of light and the physiology of the human body, including what happens in the brain when someone sees red, but not know what red looks like. Presumably, a blind scientist with the same training would be in the very same position. Likewise, a deaf scientist could know everything about the physics and physiology involved in hearing a violin but not really know what a violin sounds like. This is supposed to show that there is something in the universe beyond the reach of the physical sciences: the mysterious mental phenomenon of consciousness.

“Mental” is a word I haven’t used much (or at all) in writing about consciousness, yet consciousness is clearly a mental phenomenon if anything is. But what does it mean for a phenomenon to be “mental”?

The obvious answer, although it’s not very helpful, is that “mental” means “not physical”. But what does that mean?

An exchange of letters I referred to last month between the philosopher Thomas Nagel and a professor of bioengineering, Roy Black, tries to deal with the question. Prof. Black criticizes the idea that “nonphysical factors” are involved in consciousness:

As is frequently noted, the physical basis of life itself used to be just as mysterious as consciousness, and it’s now well explained by biochemistry and molecular biology, without nonphysical factors. So although science as we know it doesn’t explain the link between neurons and consciousness, why expect the link to be “nonphysical” rather than “novel physical”? What is a nonphysical factor, anyway? If the dark energy propelling the expansion of the universe, the strong force holding atomic nuclei together, etc., etc., are physical, do we really need anything more exotic?

… Lots of things in biology—like the development of an organism from an egg—seem impossible, until we stretch our imagination to conceive of simple precursors and mechanisms that could have been worked on by natural selection over billions of years. To quote one of [the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s] nice lines, “evolution is a process that depends on amplifying things that almost never happen.” We need to determine what “thing,” what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose. What would a precursor of “feeling like” be? That’s what we need to stretch our imaginations further to figure out.

Prof. Nagel responds, but his response is based on an assumption:

The difficulty is that conscious experience has an essentially subjective character—what it is like for its subject, from the inside—that purely physical processes do not share [how does he know this?]. Physical concepts describe the world as it is in itself, and not for any conscious subject….

I agree with Black that “we need to determine what ‘thing’, what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose.” But I believe this will require that we attribute to neurons, and perhaps to still more basic physical things and processes, some properties that in the right combination are capable of constituting subjects of experience like ourselves, to whom sunsets and chocolate and violins look and taste and sound as they do. These, if they are ever discovered, will not be physical properties, because physical properties, however sophisticated and complex, characterize only the order of the world extended in space and time, not how things appear from any particular point of view [again, how does he know this?].

Nagel’s assumption is that a purely physical process cannot have a subjective character (it cannot “feel like something”). It cannot be “how things appear” from a particular point of view. But if consciousness is a physical process, it does have a subjective character. In that case, how things feel or appear are indeed physical properties of a process that occurs in space and time (it happens inside your head when you’re conscious).

Here’s my take on the mental/physical distinction. Nobody knows what the universe contains at the most fundamental level (or if there is a most fundamental level). But suppose that quantum field theory is correct and, quoting Prof. David Tong of Cambridge University (who I wrote about earlier this year):

The best theories we have tell us that the fundamental building blocks of nature are not particles but something much more nebulous and abstract. The fundamental building blocks of nature are fluid-like substances which are spread throughout the entire universe and ripple in strange and interesting ways. That’s the fundamental reality in which we live. These fluid-like substances, we have a name for, we call them “fields”.

Furthermore, when the fields ripple or are agitated in certain ways, we get sub-atomic particles. An electron, for example, is a kind of ripple in the electron field.

So when I say that consciousness is a physical process, what I’m saying is that consciousness is at bottom constructed from one or more quantum-level fields – or whatever the fundamental building blocks of the universe are – that somehow interact with the quantum-level fields – or other building blocks – from which everything else in the universe is constructed. Maybe consciousness involves a kind of fundamental field that physicists can’t measure or detect yet. Maybe it involves a new kind of interaction between fundamental fields that physicists already know about.

But consciousness seems to be part of the natural world in the same way other physical phenomena are. And because it’s part of the natural world – not a kind of free-floating spiritual or supernatural substance or phenomenon – consciousness can represent other physical events and processes outside itself. Consciousness being part of the world is why we can be consciously aware of our bodies and the world around us.

“Mental”, therefore, refers to what happens in our minds, but at bottom mental phenomena are physical phenomena. Consciousness, like gravity, digestion and baseball, is one of the things that happens in the world. In other words, the “mental” is a subset of the “physical”. Or so it seems to me.

The Way Consciousness Is

Thinking about the United States plumbing the depths of kakistocracy (rule by the worst) is all well and good, but back to consciousness.

The human brain is the most complex object anyone has ever tried to understand. It might be the most complex object in the universe. We might never understand how it works. Robert Burton, a neurologist, writes about being surprised by a patient with a paranoid fear of the FBI that was apparently caused by a mutation in his brain:

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had run headlong into the “hard problem of consciousness,” the enigma of how physical brain mechanisms create purely subjective mental states. In the subsequent 50 years, what was once fodder for neurologists’ late night speculations has mushroomed into the preeminent question in the philosophy of mind. As an intellectual challenge, there is no equal to wondering how subatomic particles, mindless cells, synapses, and neurotransmitters create the experience of red, the beauty of a sunset, the euphoria of lust, the transcendence of music, or in this case, intractable paranoia.

Neuroscientists have long known which general areas of the brain and their connections are necessary for the state of consciousness. By observing both the effects of localized and generalized brain insults such as anoxia [total lack of oxygen] and anesthesia, none of us seriously doubt that consciousness arises from discrete brain mechanisms. Because these mechanisms are consistent with general biological principles, it’s likely that, with further technical advances, we will uncover how the brain generates consciousness.

However, such knowledge doesn’t translate into an explanation for the what of consciousness—that state of awareness of one’s surroundings and self, the experience of one’s feelings and thoughts. Imagine a hypothetical where you could mix nine parts oxytocin, 17 parts serotonin, and 11 parts dopamine into a solution that would make 100 percent of people feel a sense of infatuation 100 percent of the time. Knowing the precise chemical trigger for the sensation of infatuation (the how) tells you little about the nature of the resulting feeling (the what).

But why should we expect that knowing what chemicals cause the feeling of infatuation would tell us anything about what infatuation feels like? Aren’t those two different questions?

Suppose, however, that we keep improving our techniques for studying the brain, as Burton suggests, and eventually figure out how certain kinds of brain activity become consciousness. It doesn’t seem impossible that one day (maybe 1,000 years in the future) that we will fully understand how “subatomic particles, mindless cells, synapses, and neurotransmitters” allow us to be conscious, just as well as we understand how lungs allow us to breathe (although lungs are a lot less complicated than brains). Suppose we discover how one kind of brain activity becomes a feeling of infatuation and another kind becomes a feeling of resentment. 

Burton implies that we would still be left with what he calls the “what” question, although it might be better to call it the “why” question. Why does our consciousness have the specific properties it does? Why does a note on a violin sound just the way it does? Why does red look like this and not like this or this? In the case of color, scientists might understand perfectly well the relationship between different wavelengths of light, the physiology of our eyes and nervous system, and the colors we see. They would understand that such and such conditions, structures and processes are correlated with seeing red and others are correlated with seeing blue. All of our “how does this happen?” questions would have been answered. So would it still make sense to ask why a particular kind of light looks the way it does or a particular feeling feels the way it does?

I’m not sure it would. Once we understood what leads to colors looking the way they do, or what makes feelings feel the way they do, any “why” questions might disappear. Once we understand the “how” of consciousness, maybe there won’t be anything more to figure out. If there are any neurologists or philosophers still asking “why”, the best answer will be “that’s just the way it is” or “stop asking questions and go to sleep”.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. After all, in science, we sometimes arrive at what appear to be “brute” facts. Why is the speed of light in a vacuum 186,282 miles per second instead of 186,300 miles per second? We may never know. That’s just the way the universe works. No further explanation is available. If you have a problem with our speed of light, go live in another universe. If you don’t like the particular colors you see, keep your eyes closed. Or become a cat.

Next up on this subject, assuming I stay conscious: What does it mean to say consciousness is a physical phenomenon? It’s obviously a mental phenomenon, so how can it be a physical one too?