Tag Archives: philsophy of mind

What is Unreal Blog?

Tell us a little about why you started your blog, and what keeps you motivated about it.

As my writings started appearing in different magazines and newspapers as regular columns, I wanted to collect them in one place — as an anthology of the internet kind, as it were. That’s how my blog was born. The motivation to continue blogging comes from the memory of how my first book, The Unreal Universe, took shape out of the random notes I started writing on scrap books. I believe the ideas that cross anybody’s mind often get forgotten and lost unless they are written down. A blog is a convenient platform to put them down. And, since the blog is rather public, you take some care and effort to express yourself well.

Do you have any plans for the blog in the future?

I will keep blogging, roughly at the rate of one post a week or so. I don’t have any big plans for the blog per se, but I do have some other Internet ideas that may spring from my blog.

Philosophy is usually seen as a very high concept, intellectual subject. Do you think that it can have a greater impact in the world at large?

This is a question that troubled me for a while. And I wrote a post on it, which may answer it to the best of my ability. To repeat myself a bit, philosophy is merely a description of whatever intellectual pursuits that we indulge in. It is just that we don’t often see it that way. For instance, if you are doing physics, you think that you are quite far removed from philosophy. The philosophical spins that you put on a theory in physics is mostly an afterthought, it is believed. But there are instances where you can actually apply philosophy to solve problems in physics, and come up with new theories. This indeed is the theme of my book, The Unreal Universe. It asks the question, if some object flew by faster than the speed of light, what would it look like? With the recent discovery that solid matter does travel faster than light, I feel vindicated and look forward to further developments in physics.

Do you think many college students are attracted to philosophy? What would make them choose to major in it?

In today’s world, I am afraid philosophy is supremely irrelevant. So it may be difficult to get our youngsters interested in philosophy. I feel that one can hope to improve its relevance by pointing out the interconnections between whatever it is that we do and the intellectual aspects behind it. Would that make them choose to major in it? In a world driven by excesses, it may not be enough. Then again, it is world where articulation is often mistaken for accomplishments. Perhaps philosophy can help you articulate better, sound really cool and impress that girl you have been after — to put it crudely.

More seriously, though, what I said about the irrelevance of philosophy can be said about, say, physics as well, despite the fact that it gives you computers and iPads. For instance, when Copernicus came up with the notion that the earth is revolving around the sun rather than the other way round, profound though this revelation was, in what way did it change our daily life? Do you really have to know this piece of information to live your life? This irrelevance of such profound facts and theories bothered scientists like Richard Feynman.

What kind of advice or recommendations would you give to someone who is interested in philosophy, and who would like to start learning more about it?

I started my path toward philosophy via physics. I think philosophy by itself is too detached from anything else that you cannot really start with it. You have to find your way toward it from whatever your work entails, and then expand from there. At least, that’s how I did it, and that way made it very real. When you ask yourself a question like what is space (so that you can understand what it means to say that space contracts, for instance), the answers you get are very relevant. They are not some philosophical gibberish. I think similar paths to relevance exist in all fields. See for example how Pirsig brought out the notion of quality in his work, not as an abstract definition, but as an all-consuming (and eventually dangerous) obsession.

In my view, philosophy is a wrapper around multiple silos of human endeavor. It helps you see the links among seemingly unrelated fields, such as cognitive neuroscience and special relativity. Of what practical use is this knowledge, I cannot tell you. Then again, of what practical use is life itself?


After being called one of the top 50 philosophy bloggers, I feel almost obliged to write another post on philosophy. This might vex Jat who, while appreciating the post on my first car, was somewhat less than enthusiastic about my deeper thoughts. Also looking askance at my philosophical endeavors would be a badminton buddy of mine who complained that my posts on death scared the bejesus out of him. But, what can I say, I have been listening to a lot of philosophy. I listened to the lectures by Shelly Kagan on just that dreaded topic of death, and by John Searle (again) on the philosophy of mind.

Listening to these lectures filled me with another kind of dread. I realized once again how ignorant I am, and how much there is to know, think and figure out, and how little time is left to do all that. Perhaps this recognition of my ignorance is a sign of growing wisdom, if we can believe Socrates. At least I hope it is.

One thing I had some misconceptions about (or an incomplete understanding of) was this concept of dualism. Growing up in India, I heard a lot about our monistic philosophy called Advaita. The word means not-two, and I understood it as the rejection of the Brahman and Maya distinction. To illustrate it with an example, say you sense something — like you see these words in front of you on your computer screen. Are these words and the computer screen out there really? If I were to somehow generate the neuronal firing patterns that create this sensation in you, you would see these words even if they were not there. This is easy to understand; after all, this is the main thesis of the movie Matrix. So what you see is merely a construct in your brain; it is Maya or part of the Matrix. What is causing the sensory inputs is presumably Brahman. So, to me, Advaita meant trusting only the realness of Brahman while rejecting Maya. Now, after reading a bit more, I’m not sure that was an accurate description at all. Perhaps that is why Ranga criticized me long time ago.

In Western philosophy, there is a different and more obvious kind of dualism. It is the age-old mind-matter distinction. What is mind made of? Most of us think of mind (those who think of it, that is) as a computer program running on our brain. In other words, mind is software, brain is hardware. They are two different kinds of things. After all, we pay separately for hardware (Dell) and software (Microsoft). Since we think of them as two, ours is an inherently dualistic view. Before the time of computers, Descartes thought of this problem and said there was a mental substance and a physical substance. So this view is called Cartesian Dualism. (By the way, Cartesian coordinates in analytic geometry came from Descartes as well — a fact that might enhance our respect for him.) It is a view that has vast ramifications in all branches of philosophy, from metaphysics to theology. It leads to the concepts of spirit and souls, God, afterlife, reincarnation etc., with their inescapable implications on morality.

There are philosophers who reject this notion of Cartesian dualism. John Searle is one of them. They embrace a view that mind is an emergent property of the brain. An emergent property (more fancily called an epiphenomenon) is something that happens incidentally along with the main phenomenon, but is neither the cause nor the effect of it. An emergent property in physics that we are familiar with is temperature, which is a measure of the average velocity of a bunch of molecules. You cannot define temperature unless you have a statistically significant collection of molecules. Searle uses the wetness of water as his example to illustrate emergence of properties. You cannot have a wet water molecule or a dry one, but when you put a lot of water molecules together you get wetness. Similarly, mind emerges from the physical substance of the brain through physical processes. So all the properties that we ascribe to mind are to be explained away as physical interactions. There is only one kind of substance, which is physical. So this monistic philosophy is called physicalism. Physicalism is part of materialism (not to be confused with its current meaning — what we mean by a material girl, for instance).

You know, the trouble with philosophy is that there are so many isms that you lose track of what is going on in this wild jungle of jargonism. If I coined the word unrealism to go with my blog and promoted it as a branch of philosophy, or better yet, a Singaporean school of thought, I’m sure I can make it stick. Or perhaps it is already an accepted domain?

All kidding aside, the view that everything on the mental side of life, such as consciousness, thoughts, ideals etc., is a manifestation of physical interactions (I’m restating the definition of physicalism here, as you can see) enjoys certain currency among contemporary philosophers. Both Kagan and Searle readily accept this view, for example. But this view is in conflict with what the ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle thought. They all believed in some form of continued existence of a mental substance, be it the soul, spirit or whatever. All major religions have some variant of this dualism embedded in their beliefs. (I think Plato’s dualism is of a different kind — a real, imperfect world where we live on the one hand, and an ideal perfect world of forms on the other where the souls and Gods live. More on that later.) After all, God has to be made up of a spiritual “substance” other than a pure physical substance. Or how could he not be subject to the physical laws that we, mere mortals, can comprehend?

Nothing in philosophy is totally disconnected from one another. A fundamental stance such as dualism or monism that you take in dealing with the questions on consciousness, cognition and mind has ramifications in what kind of life you lead (Ethics), how you define reality (Metaphysics), and how you know these things (Epistemology). Through its influence on religions, it may even impact our political power struggles of our troubled times. If you think about it long enough, you can connect the dualist/monist distinction even to aesthetics. After all, Richard Pirsig did just that in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

As they say, if the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to look like nails. My tool right now is philosophy, so I see little philosophical nails everywhere.

Mind over Matter

When I want to write something (this blog post, for instance), I pick up my pen and start making these squiggly symbols on my notebook, which I type into the blog later on. Simple, everyday thing, right? But how do I do it? I mean, how do I make a change in the physical, material world of matter by the mere will or intentionality of my non-material mind?

This sounds like a really silly question, I know. When you want to write a blessed post, you just pick up a blessed pen and write the blessed thing (using “bless” the same way Whoopi Goldberg used it in one of her movies). What is so strange or philosophical about it? This is exactly what I would have said a week ago before reading up some stuff on the philosophy of mind.

How exactly do I write? The pen is made up of matter. It doesn’t move on its own volition and make words. We know it from physics. We need a cause. Of course, it is my hand that is moving it, controlled by a set of precise electro-chemical reactions. And what is causing the reactions? The neurons fining in my brain — again, interactions in the material world. And what causes the particular precise patterns of neuronal firing? It is, of course, my mind. My neurons fire in response to the ideas and words in my mind.

Hold on, not so fast there, Skippy! My mind is not a physical entity. The most physical or material statement we can make about the mind or consciousness is that it is a state of the brain — or a pattern of neuronal firings. My intention to write a few words is again a spatial and temporal arrangement of some neurons firing — nothing more. How do such patterns result in changes in the physical, material world?

We don’t find this issue so puzzling because we have been doing forever. So we don’t let ourselves be amazed by it — unless we are a bit crazy. But this problem is very real. Note that if my intention of writing resulted only in my imagination that I am writing, we don’t have a problem. Both the cause (the intention) and the effect (the imagination) are non-material. And this line of thinking does provide a solution to the original problem — just assume that everything is in one’s mind. Nothing is real. Everything is Maya, and only one’s mind exists. This is the abyss of solipsism. As a philosophical stance, this idea is consistent and even practical. I wrote a book loosely based on the notion that nothing is real — and aptly called it The Unreal Universe.

Unfortunately, solipsism is quite wrong. When I say, “Everything is in my mind, nothing else is real,” all you have to say is, “I agree, I hear you!” And boom, I am wrong! For if you agree, there is at least one more mind other than mine.

So solipsism as a solution to the puzzle that the non-material intention in a mind can make physical changes in the world is less than satisfactory. Then the other solution, of course, is to say that intentionality is illusory. Free will doesn’t exist; it is only a figment of our imagination. In other words, I didn’t really intend to write this post, it was all preordained. It is just that after-the-fact, I kind of attribute free will to it and pretend that I meant to do it.

Strange as it may seem, there are some strong indications that this statement may be true. I will write another post (with or without free will) to list them.

The current view in thinking about mind and brain is in an analogy with a digital computer. Mind is a program (software), and brain is the a computer (hardware) on which it runs. It sounds right, and seems to explain quite a bit. After all, a computer can control complex precision-equipment based on programs running on it. But there is a deep philosophical reason why this analogy is totally wrong, but that will be another post.