[ 22/6/20 ]
What do we mean by terms like spirit, reason and brain?
Looking at the history of the ideas and some of the modern derivations is interesting.
Spirit as a term comes from breath or wind. Presumably our ancient ancestors noticed that there was something invisible but had pressure and could move things that happened when we were alive (our breath) but not when we were dead; and that similar invisible happenings moved across the world in which they existed periodically.
So the notion of spirit has those two key properties of being not quite knowable and of being involved in action in reality.
How about reason?
It comes from the idea of rules or relatedness or cause. The idea that something is related to something else in some reliable fashion – a connectedness.
Brain is somewhat more modern, and is an organ in the body of most animals that is involved in generating movement that is appropriate to context. We are complex animals in complex and ever changing environments, so there is always sets of tensions between recognising what aspect of one’s current situation most closely resembles a known context then producing an action that is appropriate to that context that allows survival and on average over time increases the probability of survival and reproduction.
So how have those notions evolved over time?
All people start out with relatively simple understandings of themselves and their environment. In some people those understanding get progressively more complex and uncertain, while in others certain patterns become dominant and form into self reinforcing structures that do not easily allow in patterns that might disrupt that structure.
So what does modern science tell us about the complexity present in a human being?
We now know beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that just looking at the dendritic connections between neurons gives more possible connection pathways than there are atoms in the universe. And it is hard to get any real appreciation for numbers that big.
How about we start smaller.
Think just about the structure of a human body. We are a collection of atoms, organised into cells, organised into organs, with many levels of pattern, boundary and interaction. We have about 10,000 times as many cells in our bodies as there are people on the planet.
OK – that is a lot – but how many?
If you were to spend 70 years of working 8 hours a day, counting 10 people per second for every second of those 8 hours, you would get to see about 7 billion people (for just a tenth of a second each). To see all the cells in you body for just a tenth of a second would take roughly a million years.
Each of those cells has roughly 5 times as many atoms in it as there are people on the planet. That’s 5 million years at a tenth of a second glance just to see the atoms of one cell in your body once each. But of course the atoms of your body are in constant motion, and our bodies are much more like fountains than statues, so there is a constant flow of atoms and energy and information through our bodies giving us the form that we have. These things we know with confidence beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.
So what do we mean when we say we know something about the world?
What is the best set of tested explanations for what is going on at the lowest level?
That would be quantum mechanics.
What does quantum mechanics actually give us?
Probabilities – not certainties.
Each individual interaction has irreducible uncertainty, but summed together they often give great confidence indeed. And there is always uncertainty at the base.
How does one actually calculate probabilities using QM?
One looks at the probabilities associated with all possible paths for all possible interactions to come to a probability for any particular interaction. And one often employs mathematical tricks in doing that based upon the fact that most far field interactions cancel each other out and can be ignored in practice most of the time (but not always). So there are uncertainties on uncertainties. And in some contexts the math works really well, and we get some really neat toys, like transistors and Josephson junctions and diode LASERs and all manner of weird and wonderful things that behave in very predictable fashion provided we keep them within certain ranges of conditions like temperature, electric and magnetic field, pressure, torsion, etc.
Does any of that mean that the reality within which we exist always and necessarily follows any predictable and necessary pattern?
No – does not mean that at all.
And certainly some aspects of reality do behave reliably, or else pattern such as ourselves could not possibly exist.
So the best science we have seems to be telling us that we are complex beyond our ability to understand in detail, and that any and all understandings that we have of ourselves or reality must eternally and necessarily involve uncertainties and multiple levels of failure modalities.
That best science, and best logic, seems to be telling us that we are composed of multiple levels of very complex systems, interacting in ways that are in many essential aspects unknowable and unpredictable, even as those patterns also deliver sets of boundaries in structure that allow for the emergence of new and more complex levels of pattern and reliability in certain contexts.
So we are left with an essence of unknowability, which seems to be an essential aspect of the notion of Spirit.
We are seen to be extremely complex embodied systems that contain multiple levels of fundamentally uncertain boundary conditions; so that for how ever many are our similarities, our differences are also present, eternal and vast beyond any hope of comprehension (eternally). That seems like a fairly reasonable approximation to the term soul – something unique, unfathomable, unknowable; and present in us all (and to a lesser degree, in everything around us).
What about reason?
That seems to be a necessarily simplistic approximation to whatever reality actually is. Reason gives us access to infinite realms of mathematics and logics which give us the best modeling tools we can possibly get; and no map is ever the territory. And it is much worse than that.
It is now clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that evolution selects for survival. In all real contexts time and energy are very important factors. Thus in all real survival structures, model fidelity plays third fiddle to computation time and computation energy requirements. Thus evolution tends to select for things that are close enough to be useful most of the time, and can be rapidly and easily computed.
So what we each get to experience as reality, is our own personalised and subconsciously generated model of reality (our personal VR), that is full of hacks and biases that allow us to make what sense we do of existence. And that is a deeply recursive “rabbit hole” – be very sure you really want to go down there (I’ve gone deep, and not many people can understand much of what I say).