Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mind, Body, and Spirit -- Some Speculation

One of my earliest recollections of Physics in High School was the proposition that it would start with certain undefined things. This bothered me. How does one speak of that which is not defined?

Well, Newton did it and Physics seems to work well enough for us to build a lot of Technology on top of it, so shut up about the undefined things and get cracking on your homework's problem sets. So, I solved problems about length, time, mass, charge, temperature, and the amount of substance without knowing what they were.

But I sort of did know. Length is how long my yardstick is. Time is how long I have left to sleep. Temperature is how cold it is outside. And so on.

And, as the title of this post suggests, we sort of do know what mind, body, and spirit mean. Sort of.

Let's break things down in simplest terms. Humans are both material and in some sense immaterial. Our bodies are made of matter and can be quantified in terms of length, time, mass, charge, temperature and amount of substance. 

If you've ever been in the presence of a corpse, you'll know that there's something more. When I looked down at the body of my deceased father my overriding thought was, "He's not here." Some people seem to think that they can weigh the body of a dying person and sense a change of weight when the soul leaves their body. Good luck with that. I'm skeptical.

But I'm not skeptical that there's something more than material going on. We think, and we solve problems, and we derive theorems. Lawyers solve legal problems. Accountants solve accounting problems. Two kids entering school are both kids, but one may emerge a lawyer and another an accountant by virtue of their training. These things we learn sometimes at great effort are contained somewhere. Though the Theorem of Pythagoras is not a thing in the world, my knowledge of what it is and how it works are encoded as neural connections inside my noggin. But they seem to be more than mere neural connections.

And I am conscious of my existence. This, too, is non-material thing that emerges from the pattern of neural activation in my brain.

How do I map these thoughts about thoughts into the words mind, soul, and spirit? I feel pretty confident that the patterns of neurons and their linkages in my brain constitute those immaterial things I described and I think I'm write to identify them collectively as mind or soul.

But what about spirit? Has mankind any sort of transcendent aspect beyond the hardware of body/brain and the software of neural links/weights? If the answer is no, then we may stop right here.

OR if you're not afraid by being cut by Ockham's Razor, perhaps you might consider some conjectures that don't have a lot in the way of physical evidence to support them or anything I'd call deductive proof from experiment.

Ghosts. What are ghosts made of? How do they work? They remember stuff that happened when they were alive and those memories were laid down in neural networks made of matter. And ghosts seem to be linked to places--their haunts. I figure most ghost stories are bunkum. Ghosts make a good literary device to introduce some ambiguity into a story. But let's suppose, Ockham's Razor be damned, that some ghost stories are real.

Something has to go to Heaven or to Hell wherein the injustices of this world are balanced in the next. Let's call that something spirit.

Descartes would say that body and spirit are two parallel planes of existence that somehow touch in the pineal gland of the brain. Conversely, Spinoza would say that body and spirit are made of the same stuff somehow. What if they're both wrong in one sense and both right in another sense? 

(Make sure Ockham isn't watching, ok?) Suppose the matter is made of more-than-four dimensional stuff. The string theory guys talk about 10 or 12 dimensions with the first three being what we're used to, the fourth being time, and the rest being "rolled up" so small we can't detect them. In this case, the operation of our brains and the activation of our neural networks would define a more-than-four dimensional pattern of neural connections. After death, ghosts might be the persistence of the pattern in those higher (rolled up) dimensions. This makes matter and spirit orthogonal subspace projections of a single monist substance.

This formulation makes Descartes and Spinoza happy, though we do keep an eye out for Ockham. And it provides a potentially helpful elaboration of otherwise undefined terms body, mind, and spirit. No, you should not take any of this dogmatically. And if you take this as anything more than pure speculation, Ockham will cut you.


  1. This is a fascinating post but with regard to this quote: 'Something has to go to Heaven or to Hell wherein the injustices of this world are balanced in the next.'
    Why? There is no evidence of this, unless you believe in the explanations offered by organised religion.
    And also: 'This makes matter and spirit orthogonal subspace projections of a single monist substance.'
    Er...really? Doesn't 'orthogonal' just mean 'straight'? And where's the single monist substance?
    (I am aware that this may be Aristotelian and I may not have a clue what I'm talking about, but it would be helpful to offer an explanation as to what this is).

    1. There's an interesting dialog of Plato's "The Gorges" wherein he makes this argument without appealing to any religion that's currently organized. Although The Lightning Thief is well received, I don't think anybody takes Zeus, et al. seriously today.

      No, orthogonal means at-right-angles. take the X axis, rotate 90 degrees and draw the Y axis. Then rotate 90 degrees from the XY plane and draw the Z axis. These three axes are orthogonal to one another. Now, suppose you could do this with more 90 degree turns to define more axes. That's sort of what's going on here.

    2. Thank you - I have to confess to not having read 'The Gorges' but feel I should.

      Will now re-read - I didn't know the correct meaning of orthogonal!

  2. Doesn't this just mean that orthogonal subspace is the dimensions which we can perceive with our everyday senses? Matter and what we call spirit are a single substance but some of it resides in dimensions where we have no direct sensory access to it. This does kind of make sense to me.

    1. Right. Our everyday senses regard up/down, left/right, and to/fro. To make room for the stuff we don't sense, I add more dimensions. But since we don't sense them, there's Ockham to contend with.

    2. Elaine - thank you, I think I understand it better. I would like to believe in 'spirit' or non-material substances that we can't perceive.
      I can conceive of the idea that there might be dimensions to which we have no access.

      Steve - am I right in assuming that the 'extra' dimensions are the ones referred to in string theory? I suppose the problem with those is that there's no evidence for them but they need to exist for the maths to work.

    3. Those string theory dimensions are what I had in mind. The difficulty with the string theory is finding the evidence to keep Ockham at bay. That's the difficulty with all metaphysics and why some skeptical physicists labeled string theory a religion, not physics. This did concentrate the minds of the string theorists and got them working on experimental predictions which is always helpful. I find most arguments are much more suitably settled by experiment.


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