Archive for August, 2008

Picture:  Why me? There are a few philosophical problems which occur spontaneously to people who know nothing of academic philosophy but have a naturally thoughtful inclination. The problem of free will is one, I think, and probably so is qualia; many people who never heard of David Chalmers sometimes ponder the ‘hard question’, asking themselves how they know that the blue they see ‘in their heads’ is the same as the blue other people see. David M. Black has put his finger on another of these problems in his paper on The Ownership of Consciousness. Why am I me and not someone else? Black’s main purpose lies elsewhere – he wants to suggest that talk of spirituality can be a valuable way of discussing structures in the subjective part of the world, complementing the reductive scientific account which deals with the objective aspects. That’s an attractive project (though I think he allows himself too much too easily in assuming that subjective experience has causal effects).But it was the issue posed by the title of the paper that particularly caught my attention.

Now of course, there is a sense in which this is is an absurd enquiry. Whoever I am, that person is me: I can’t not be me, by definition. Self and consciousness are intertwined, so that the ownership of my consciousness can never really be in doubt. I am my consciousness. It would make more sense to ask why I have this body than to ask why I have this consciousness. So it might seem that the mystery of why I am who I am is really about on a par with the mystery of how I was lucky enough to be born on Earth, rather than on a planet without an atmosphere; not really a mystery at all.

But suppose, we might say, we strip away the details of my body and my life and pare me down to the essential nub of experiencing entity. What makes this nub any different from other such nubs, and why is it linked with the life of this particular human organism rather than any other?

Some would say in response that there is no such nub; it’s exactly my history and my physical constitution that make my consciousness what it is; so again it’s no surprise, properly understood, that my experiences belong to me and not to anyone else. Strip away all those supposedly inessential features, and you strip me away with them. Others would accept that it’s my history and composition that define me as me, but feel, possibly on the basis of introspection, that there still is something to me over and above all that. They might find this final ingredient in an inscrutable panpsychic quality of matter itself; others have suggested a kind of universal experiential substrate or background. Instead of individual nubs, we have a kind of Universal self; a line of thought which is highly compatible with some religious and mystical views.

However, I think both sides of this argument are missing the point. To say that my individual consciousness arises from or is constituted by my physical nature and background is not actually to dispose of the essential problem at all, because my physical nature and background are also inexplicably particular. Perhaps the underlying problem is the vexed question of why anything is anything in particular: it’s just that in the case of my own experience and my own existence the question hits me with a force it lacks when I’m merely wondering about a chair. The basic problem is haecceity or thisness (the same problem which in my view lies at the root of the qualia problem).

The difficulty of this issue is that it seems no kind of explanation will do. One way to explain the arbitrary complexity of the world would be to assume that everything is really a logical necessity, so if we were clever enough we could deduce all truths from first principles, like Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought which, beginning with the cogito had got as far as deducing the existence of rice pudding and income tax before anyone could switch it off, if I remember correctly. Even if we could pull off such staggering feats of deduction, the explanation is no good because if everything exists only by virtue of logical necessity everything exists in an eternal Platonic world, the opposite of the mutable diversity we set out to explain. A more scientific view would have it that the current state of the world derives from previous states in accordance with the laws of physics, so that the explanation is essentially historical. But this is no better. We now have an expanded set of laws; beside those of logic, we need those of mathematics and those of physics. But they’re still laws, so we’re still Platonic and immutable unless some arbitrary graininess somehow crept in at the beginning of it all. Nowadays we’re readier to accept that huge chaotic complexity can arise out of small beginnings; but not out of nothing. Explaining that original graininess is as difficult as explaining the haecceity of the world was to start with.

And what about those laws of physics? Do they too reduce to logical or mathematical necessity, or is there some arbitrary element involved; and if so, how do you explain that? One line we could take is to say that all the possible variations of the underlying constants are realized in some possible world. The problem of how we got these particular laws of physics then turns into the same sort of vacuous problem as the ones mentioned above: if the laws weren’t like that, you wouldn’t be here to wonder about it.

But that’s no good. Even if we could get over the problems involved in the idea of parallel worlds, which seems to involve the problematic retention of identity between non-identical entities, how can we deal with the concept of all possible sets of laws of physics? Typically in these discussions it is assumed that we’re talking about variations in the value of a few constants, but things are much worse than that. Apart from the sheer bogglement of universes where the value of gravity is determined by quadripedal blurpton interactions in the trouser-pocket of fourth-order fried bread, if all possible sets of laws are realised, that includes universes whose laws and constitution are the same as ours up until 2009, when the blurptons abruptly take over. In short, anything could happen at any time; to say that all possible laws of physics are realised in some universe is in effect to declare that there are no laws of physics and that everything happens arbitrarily.

That is another possible position, of course, though an utterly unsatisfactory one. Taking a more traditional tack, we could say that the world is the way it is because of the will of God; but for philosophers, that’s no good. We need to know whether God was working on logical principles, and if it wasn’t pure logic, where did His axioms or His quirks of personality come from?

In the last century it was finally established that there is something in maths that isn’t reducible to logic; not much, but an essential little something which can be construed in different ways. It seems to me that in the same way there’s some fundamental element in metaphysics that isn’t any kind of law; but I have no idea how to construe it at all.