December 8, 2006

Mind Your Head

Googling "beauty" for an unrelated post that may now never see the light of the day, I stumbled upon the complete transcript of a fascinating conversation between the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein, at Mukto-mono. The meeting between the two Nobel Laureates took place in a village near Potsdam, Germany, more than three-quarters of a century ago. The conversation focussed on the concepts of truth and beauty, with music, religion, and science providing the backdrop. The following excerpt sums up their differing positions on truth about the physical world:

EINSTEIN: We do things with our mind, even in our everyday life, for which we are not responsible. The mind acknowledges realities outside of it, independent of it. For instance, nobody may be in this house, yet that table remains where it is.

TAGORE: Yes, it remains outside the individual mind, but not the universal mind. The table is that which is perceptible by some kind of consciousness we possess.

EINSTEIN: If nobody were in the house the table would exist all the same, but this is already illegitimate from your point of view, because we cannot explain what it means, that the table is there, independently of us. Our natural point of view in regard to the existence of truth apart from humanity cannot be explained or proved, but it is a belief which nobody can lack - —not even primitive beings. We attribute to truth a superhuman objectivity. It is indispensable for us - —this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind - though we cannot say what it means.

TAGORE: In any case, if there be any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity, then for us it is absolutely non-existing.

I interpret Einstein's position on truth, one that I share, to be that the physical reality is independent of the observer. For Tagore, though, without a conscious human mind, there is no reality. As Ilya Prigogine says in an addendum to the transcript, Tagore maintains that "even if absolute truth could exist, it would be inaccessible to the human mind". The poet and the physicist are on totally different wavelengths, no pun intended. When it comes to beauty, however, the two seem to concur somewhat:

TAGORE: Once I asked an English musician to analyze for me some classical music, and explain to me what elements make for the beauty of the piece.

EINSTEIN: The difficulty is that the really good music, whether of the East or of the West, cannot be analyzed.

TAGORE: Yes, and what deeply affects the hearer is beyond himself.

EINSTEIN: The same uncertainty will always be there about everything fundamental in our experience, in our reaction to art, whether in Europe or in Asia. Even the red flower I see before me on your table may not be the same to you and me.

TAGORE: And yet there is always going on the process of reconciliation between them, the individual taste conforming to the universal standard.

For both Einstein and Tagore, beauty, in this case the beauty of music, cannot be analyzed. Tagore, however, believes in the existence of a universal or absolute standard of beauty, unknowable perhaps, but approachable to the human mind. Einstein, on the contrary, thinks that the reaction to art is an interpretation of the individual mind. A curious reversal of their positions on truth, indeed!

I am a physicalist and I reject both Aristotelean and Cartesian dualism. Nothing exists for me beyond the physical reality — no soul, no universal mind, no god, and not even flying spaghetti monster. All physical phenomena are within the scope of science. The metaphysical conceptualization of absolute truth as Brahman in the Upanishads, is appealing in juxtaposition with the simpler, anthropomorphic concepts of god, singular, or plural. Nevertheless, it's "vague and devoid of any meaning", as Bertrand Russell says.

Beauty has no special significance for me that is different from our experience of a more palpable phenomenon such as financial risk. Our reactions to a red flower and a brown table are both conditioned reflections. These are expressions of physical laws in the neural pathways of the brain, constructed from our individual experiences. The face that fired a thousand neurons could be that of Helen of Troy or a hundred dollar bill!

Marvin Minsky and Daniel Dennett may concur with physicalism, too. Wired has published a transcript of an interesting discussion between the two on the former's recent book, "The Emotional Machine". I haven't read the book yet, but its central proposition seems to be that emotion is the result of the workings of the same machinery as the one that is used for reasoning, ++--. Thus,

Anger means you've turned off your social graces, you've turned off your cautiousness, you've turned off your long-range plans and most of your ambition, and you've turned on things that make you act more rapidly and less deeply.

Dennett agrees with Minsky mostly, but adds a wrinkle, "Emotions aren't an add-on but rather the politics of the whole system." In an earlier post, Eyes Wide Shut, I referred to recent research showing that during dreams, areas in brain that are thought to be responsible for logic have little or no activity, but other regions responsible for emotion, memory and fear do. Minsky's proposition seems to be in line with these findings.

I am almost certain that when we have a complete understanding of the working of the brain, it'll be a physical description. Minsky's proposition is a step in that direction. It does not necessarily imply that we'll be able to predict a child's smile with any more certainty than, say, quantum predictions. It does, however, imply physical monism. Dennett has an interesting way to sum it all: "My body has a mind of its own, so what does it need me for?"


The title is from Minsky's closing response to Dennett, "I once peeled a label off a London bus. It read: MIND YOUR HEAD.
1 comment :
  1. Needless to say, I concur with your observations. Thanks for these excellent reads!

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