Friday, February 23, 2007

A Matter for Science

My view is that the right notion of what goes on at the fundamental level of nature can help make sense of philosophical questions which arise at the human level. For instance, consider the mind/body problem. The proposal I endorse says that the elementary constituent of our concrete world is an actualization event which has an essential experiential aspect. The existence of these events is already known to us: they are the measurements (or interactions between quantum systems) in quantum physics. These events combine in a causal network which comprises the natural world. The simple experiential qualities of simple systems are *somehow* leveraged into the macro-level experiences with which we are familiar.

Now, the problem is, between the fundamental level and the human level there are many orders of magnitude and incredible amounts of complexity. The human brain/body system, in particular, is a complicated Rube Goldberg contraption. So that qualifier (“somehow”) looms large.

But the good news is that this sort of “combination problem” is primarily a scientific question. The normal course of scientific research will shed light on the philosophical proposal. Here’s an example. If I’m right, we will uncover facts which lead us to attribute (basic or “core”) conscious experience further and further down the evolutionary scale. This is because our own consciousness is continuously rooted in our evolutionary heritage. On this front, I’m interested in a paper like this one, which looks at the role of the brain stem in consciousness (HT: Brains).

Also, we should find evidence that non-trivial quantum effects are harnessed by biological systems, including our own. This is because our grounding in quantum mechanics is needed to make sense of life and mind in a way not possible in classical science. So, I want to keep a lookout for clues like this blog post at Neurophilosophy, which describes a proposed role for subatomic physics in olfaction.

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