Tuesday, January 24, 2006


This Sunday the panel discussed the issue of qualia - how physical stimuli result in indentical electronic signals which upon arrival in the mind become the smells, colours, tastes etc. of everyday experience. One of the scientists provocatively asked his colleague what kind of an explanation for this he thought would satisfy humanity, and would it be of any practical use?

Thinkers in the western tradition have tended to separate out the problem of existence into two quite distinct grand mysteries: Objectivity and Subjectivity.

As the latter was always assumed to be part of our Divine nature for most of history Science has historically concentrated on the former:
  • Why does stuff exist and what are the rules that determine how it behaves?
  • How did the material universe get so big and what will happen to it in the future?
  • What is the significance of the size of our cosmos and the proportions of stuff and non-stuff within it?
  • Is matter an unlikely occupant of a tiny part of a void or are stuff and non-stuff both part of a bigger material system? etc.

Materialists have cut their teeth on these questions and have more recently turned their attentions to our brains and the subjective experience of consciousness: indeed a complex matter, but one where the subject to be studied at least seemed much closer to hand. Yet their efforts to expel the ghost from inside the machine have met with only partial success, falling short of a complete material explanation for consciousness. (Even if we are more likely to see the importance of incarnation to cognition than in the days of fully-detachable immortal souls.)

Objectivity remains a partially-resolved riddle, largely because the majority of the stuff in the cosmos is observable by us only in as much as it interacts with light. And once matter is studied at the micro-level as well as the macro-level it becomes less easy to achieve a clean separation from the mystery of Subjectivity.

So in both instances western scientists often find themselves scraping their skulls along a philosophical glass ceiling, which they are mostly reluctant to push through because in so doing their methodology is likely to become re-mudded with the kind of metaphysical speculations (and certainties) that their predecessors spent centuries defining themself in opposition to.

I suspect however that neither of the grand mysteries is wholly solveable in isolation and that they will have to be re-compounded along the lines of traditional Eastern thought before we can get any closer to satifying, big picture conclusions.

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