Dreams in the Witch House

Though it is not one of H.P. Lovecraft’s best stories, Dreams in the Witch House is one of his creepiest. The creep factor mostly emanates from the witch’s  familiar, Brown Jenkin. Jenkin is an intermediary from the netherworld, enticing the unwary to enter. A rat/human hybrid, Jenkin eventually dispatches the protagonist by emerging from the wall (which is actually a partition between alternate planes of existence as well as one between indoors and outdoors) and chewing through the man’s body while he sleeps.
Tunneling through a person in his sleep is chilling enough, but what makes Jenkin really creepy is what it represents: shadowy possibilities which gnaw away at us to our demise.

H. P. was a big believer in the old aphorism, “curiosity killed the cat”, (I’m sure he pictured the inquisitive animal sniffing too close to a questing tentacle). He was leery of natural philosophy run amok, based on what happened to the fabled cat. Science, he felt, risked exposing our dearly held beliefs as a mere façade, laid over an alien, chaotic, deeper reality. H. P. was a little odd, but he has never been alone in his fear of hidden truth – or in his attraction to it.

The fear of a hidden truth appears to drive quite a bit of discussion surrounding the philosophy of mind. The fear manifests in varieties dependent upon the school of thought involved. For some positions, the fear of hidden truth appears to be their primary impetus.

Modern-day substance dualists, for instance, fear scientific implications of an explanatory mechanism for activities which tradition ascribes to the soul. The idea that intentionality or qualitative experience may be dependent upon coarse, material goings-on horrifies them. Their revulsion is compelling enough to make arguments from incredulity seem plausible.

“How,” they ask, “can a thing be ‘about’ something?”

Yet, when one fires an arrow at a target, the arrow flies at the target. Something compels it to do so, rather than allowing it to appear suddenly on the moon. Likewise, it remains an arrow, which is a big part of why it flies at the target. The archer attending to the arrow’s flight maintains her identity and has determined her course as well. Even when she visualizes her shot before releasing the bowstring, her intention derives from the same set of considerations determining the shot, albeit in a roundabout way. Maybe she is just importing her perspective on the shot all long and it’s all happening in her (and everyone else’s) head, but that doesn’t matter. The outcome is the same, whether it is the mental substance or the physical substance which is reduced. Reduction is what the substance dualist really fears.

Monists are not so different. They have faced up to the implications of natural philosophy, yet they still fear the loss of mental causation in their schema. The feared outcome of reducing our mental activities to their base, physical mechanisms has been described most eloquently as a “Ghost in the Machine” scenario. In that case, our  consciousness is the ghost,  a mere byproduct with the mistaken impression that it is in charge of things while it is really  looking on impotently as all the little neurons in our brains respond to various stimuli.

The troublesome issue at work is ‘downward causation’. When the archer releases her arrow, do we think that her will causes the arrow to fly toward the target, or do we think that it is the action of her muscles, muscle fibers, the chemical bonds in the arms of the bow, and on down the line? Natural philosophy tells us that the little things add up to the big ones, in terms of how the arrow does what it does. The limbs of the bow springing back into shape do not cause the chemical bonds to behave as they do; it’s the other way around.

We readily accept that state of affairs when it comes to bows and arrows. But if brains and minds bear a similar relationship to their base constituents, then willing the arrow to fly fares no better than the bow’s springing back – it is caused by what’s going on in the neuronal circuitry rather than causing anything itself. The alternative to accepting this arrangement for brains and minds is to make a special exception for mental activities.

Yet it seems impossible to do so without undermining natural philosophy. We may wish to do so, to save mental activities as causes, but it is hard to see how we could avoid hypocrisy. We would still use our knowledge of chemical bonds to build better bows and devise more effective anti-depressants. We would still act as if the bottom-up story were true.

On the other hand, if we accept the bottom-up story for ourselves, what is the point in asking all these questions in the first place? The repercussion of our conclusion is that we are onlookers, like spectators at a sporting event whose critique of the game is utterly ineffectual. It’s hard to see how such knowledge means anything. Just as we risk hypocrisy if we veer away from natural philosophy when it comes to mind, we equally risk hypocrisy by accepting bottom-up explanations when it comes to mental phenomena – we will continue to behave as if our experiences, intentions and motivations make things happen. What to do?

Richard Feynman gave us a clue to the answer.

“If you think you understand quantum mechanics,” he said, “you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

Quantum fields are not phenomena with which we are familiar, nor can they be. They may not even be ‘really real’. They may simply be the hooks upon which we hang our descriptions of broad regularities in the world of the very small. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter whether the entities to which quantum mechanics refers are real or not. The theory predicts the regularities of the Lilliputian realm – it works.

The thing is, do any of our theories, right down to everyday descriptions, bear a different sort of relationship to their subject matter? When Ernest Rutherford said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting,” he meant that physics told the basic, really real story of what was going on in the world. Chemistry simplified physics and summarized the really real story of the microscopic world on a convenient level, and so on for biology, geology, meteorology, etc. But his analysis flips the relationship between the disciplines. If we say that Osmium is a metal which conducts electricity and heat at a certain efficiency, has a certain density, reacts with other elements with a certain propensity, then we need ‘bridge laws’ – extra rules – to relate those chemical properties to their associated quantum mechanical phenomena.

The upshot is, only once we have found the Osmium can we find the particular arrangement of quarks, electrons, up-spins and down-spins without which there is no Osmium.

It is easy to turn around and say, “Oh, that’s just what Osmium is.”

But without Osmium and it’s chemical properties, where is our basic-physics explanation? The phenomena explained by the higher level theory permit an explanation in the lower level theory.

And isn’t that how we know about Osmium itself? It is something which responds to our poking and prodding with fire, pushes, and shocks with an elemental predictability. Once we have an atomic explanation for Osmium, we can use a mass spectrometer to find it more reliably, but our target is still the Osmium, not its counter-factual-supporting constituents.

This world of theoretical explanation is terribly confusing. It is confusing because theoretical explanations are not what we normally consider explanations at all. Theories are useful, but they are not true as we wish them to be true – precisely and thoroughly.

We expect our explanations to be more genealogical. Confronted with a piece of Osmium, we can’t be satisfied with atomic weight and number. Those qualities do not explain this piece of Osmium. Rather, we must know how (and so why) the Osmium is in this lump, now, in this place. Break it down to the sub-parts, the quarks, if you will, but the structure of the story does not change.

Where does that leave the Ghost? Where does that leave the mental substance? The Ghost haunts neurobiology, not a reductive explanation. We think our neurons and their activities are our own. We feel comfortable with the idea that we are not exactly the same person if one of the little guys stops working or grows a new dendrite in the course of learning about the atomic number of Osmium. We are comfortable with the change because it occurs within a historical framework, and that framework lends us a persistent identity.

The mental substance seems doomed to participate in some kind of reductive explanation as well. It’s hard to see how it pertains to us, personally, if it does not. If it does participate, then we can call it a substance, but not a separate one. If there are spirits and ectoplasm, then they are located in the same historical framework as the lump of Osmium, its electrons, its quarks, etc. and make their mark, at least upon our consciousness, within that framework.

There are no hidden truths, then. There isn’t some subtext where it all breaks down, as H.P feared. Or if there is, we can never find it.

 

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Dreams in the Witch House

  1. All biological organisms come with a built-in purpose: to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Upon that basic need all of our secondary, tertiary, and other hairy intentions arise. Thus we are purposeful causal agents in a deterministic universe. According to Michael Gazzaniga’s “Who’s In Charge?”, we each have a portion of our brain in the left hemisphere that is dedicated to writing our “story”, and it attempts to explain ourselves to ourselves and the outside world. But it would be more accurate to say that we are the whole nervous system, because even our memories are learned in our bodies. We mimic the faces of others who are feeling emotions and that mimicry raises similar feelings in us. The mental stuff is a process running on the brain. I guess the process would be the Ghost.

    • keithnoback says:

      I don’t think the neurobiology of consciousness matters all that much. It tells us more about how and why we theorize, rather than shedding any light on the place of consciousness in our experience. The former pertains to the latter – it showcases our motivations. We want to know how things work and view the functional and generalizable explanations which we come up with as true (at least partially).
      But can we examine our motives in any meaningful way, does consciousness come with intention or from it? Those are the more basic questions, and I don’t see how looking at the neurons, even though the neuron story works, can ever really help us with them.

      • Indeed. Neuroscience is primarily concerned about where things happen in the brain in order to better diagnose and treat brain injuries or disease. All of the meaning of what we think and feel and do comes from personal and social philosophy.

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