Might as well make my first churchless blog post in 2023 about a subject that first caught my attention back in 2011, which was the first time I read Alex Rosenberg's book, The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions.
It's the notion that our thoughts aren't about anything at all. That link leads to a blog post where I did my best to describe why Rosenberg says this. I won't repeat most of what was said in that post, so I invite you to read it if you want to have your mind blown so early in the new year.
This quotation from the book that I included in the previous post lays out what's at stake here, according to Rosenberg, a philosopher at Duke University and codirector of the Duke Center for Philosophy of Biology -- a pleasingly cool title.
What you absolutely cannot be wrong about is that your conscious thought was about something. Even having a wildly wrong thought about something requires that the thought be about something.
It's this last notion that introspection conveys that science has to deny. Thinking about things can't happen at all. The brain can't have thoughts about Paris, or about France, or about capitals, or about anything else for that matter.
When consciousness convinces you that you, or your mind, or your brain has thoughts about things, it is wrong.
Don't misunderstand, no one denies that the brain receives, stores, and transmits information. But it can't do these things in anything like the way introspection tells us it does -- by having thoughts about things. The way the brain deals with information is totally different from the way introspection tells us it does.
Seeing why and understanding how the brain does the work that consciousness gets so wrong is the key to answering all the rest of the questions that keep us awake at night worrying over the mind, the self, the soul, the person.
As I said in the blog post, this question of the about'ness of thoughts is the most difficult part of the book, which I've been re-re-reading parts of. Rosenberg tries different approaches to convince the reader that he's correct, several of which I described in the earlier blog post.
One approach I didn't describe, but noted in my recent re-re-reading (third time, I'm pretty sure), concerns an admittedly difficult to understand conception of the regress necessary if neurons in the brain were to be about something.
I won't try to summarize this concept, as Rosenberg does a good job himself in these paragraphs.
Now the problem is clear. We see why the Paris neurons can't be about Paris the way that red octagons are about stopping. It's because that way lies a regress that will prevent us from ever understanding what we wanted to figure out in the first place: how one chunk of stuff -- the Paris neurons -- can be about another chunk of stuff -- Paris.
We started out trying to figure out how the Paris neurons could be about Paris, and our tentative answer is that they are about Paris because some other part of the brain -- the neural interpreter -- is both about the Paris neurons and about Paris. We set out to explain how one set of neurons is about something out there in the world.
We find ourselves adopting the theory that it's because another set of neurons is about the first batch of neurons and about the thing in the world, too. This won't do.
What we need to get off the regress is some set of neurons that is about some stuff outside the brain without being interpreted -- by anyone or anything else (including any other part of the brain) -- as being about the stuff outside the brain.
What we need is a clump of matter, in this case the Paris neurons, that by the very arrangement of its synapses points at, indicates, singles out, picks out, identifies (and here we just start piling up more and more synonyms for "being about") another clump of matter outside the brain.
But there is no such physical stuff.
Physics has ruled out the existence of clumps of matter of the required sort. There are just fermions and bosons and combinations of them. None of that stuff is just, all by itself, about any other stuff. There is nothing in the whole universe -- including, of course, all the neurons in your brain -- that just by its nature or composition can do this job of being about some other clump of matter.
So when consciousness assures us that we have thoughts about stuff, it has to be wrong. The brain nonconsciously stores information in thoughts. But the thoughts are not about stuff. Therefore, consciousness cannot retrieve thoughts about stuff. There are none to retrieve. So it can't have thoughts about stuff either.
Now, I view this excerpt, and Rosenberg's entire book, as evidence that philosophy is a good marriage partner with neuroscience. What Rosenberg has done is apply a form of philosophical analysis to neuroscientific knowledge about how the brain works.
Which demolishes many common sense notions, including that we can think about things in the world, and that there is an independent self having such thoughts.
However, I can understand why others might view what Rosenberg says as gibberish. My response to that is this: if you look upon his book that way, do your best to grasp why he dismisses the idea that thoughts are about stuff in the world. Only then can you make an informed judgement about what he says.