A Philosopher's Blog

Out of Body

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2016

Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in &q...

When I was young, I had my first out of body experience (OBE for short). While I did not know about them at the time, I later learned that my experience matched the usual description: I felt as if the center of my awareness and perception had left my body. It seemed as if I could perceive normally from that location, albeit with greater vividness (retrospectively, it seemed like high definition). After that, I had OBEs from time to time, especially when I was under great stress—such as all my years in graduate school.

When I was a kid, I only had two explanations for the experiences. One was supernatural: my soul was leaving my body and looking about. The other was paranormal: somehow, I had sensory capabilities that differed from the normal limits of the sense organs. As I learned philosophy and science, I came up with other explanations. As a bit of light and fun philosophy, I’ll go through some of them.

When I learned about metaphysical dualism in the context of Descartes, I found that I had a theory that would explain my experience. For the dualist, there are two types of stuff: the mental and the physical. The mind is made of mental stuff which thinks, but is not extended in space. The body is made of physical stuff that does not think, but is extended in space. On the dualist view, a person is their mind and this mind somehow interacts (or syncs) with the body. Since the mind is distinct from the body, it could presumably leave and someone still interact (or sync) with the physical world. Roughly put, an OBE would be having the ghost leaving the shell and looking about, but then returning to the still living body.

This account of the OBE does face all the challenges of metaphysical dualism and some of its own. In terms of the usual problems, there is the difficulty in proving the existence of such a mind and the classic mind-body problem of accounting for how the mind and body interact causally. In terms of a specific problem with dualist OBE, there is the obvious problem of how a disembodied mind would still perceive the physical world without its body. If it could do this, then there would be no need for sense organs and people would not lose their senses due to physical damage or disease.

Another approach to the OBE experience is to make use of Occam’s Razor, which can be taken as the metaphysical principle that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. That is, if there are competing explanations for a phenomenon, then the one with the fewest posited metaphysical entities has an advantage. The principle is also applied to the number of assumptions required by explanations and it is sometimes crudely put as the notion that the simplest explanation is best.

In the case of my OBE experiences, an application of Occam’s Razor would cut away the metaphysical account in favor of one with fewer entities/assumptions. In this case, the more economical explanation would be that my experiences were the result of unusual activity in my nervous system that created (hallucination or dreamlike) the impression that my awareness was outside my body. Since such malfunctions do exist and there is no need to postulate a wandering soul, this explanation has the most scientific appeal. It is also a disappointing one; like learning that a magic trick is not magic, but misdirection and deceit. Fortunately, it can be fun to briefly pretend to ignore the most plausible explanation and consider some other philosophical options. After the fun is over, the most plausible explanation should, of course,  be reseated on its throne.

One interesting possibility is that the mind has the capacity to receive sensory data in non-standard ways. That is, that our epistemic capabilities extend beyond our sense organs or that we are someone able to pull in sensory data from an unusual perspective. OBE experiences involve, at least in my case, only sight and hearing—which involve energy. It could be imagined that the nervous system is somehow able to shift its perception point by manipulating this energy. The easy and obvious counter to this is that studies of the nervous system would have presumably found evidence of such a strange system. Since there seems to be no biological mechanism for this, this explanation seems rather defective.

To close, it is worth considering the philosophical view known as phenomenology or idealism. This view was most famously held by Berkeley.  His view made it into the popular consciousness with the classic question: “if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” The answer, for Berkeley, was that there is always someone there to hear it. This someone is, of course, God. God perceives everything all the time. This might explain why when you shower, you always feel like someone is watching.

Getting back on track, Berkeley’s philosophical view is a rejection of dualism. Unlike the metaphysical materialist who rejects the mind and accepts matter, Berkeley accepted the mind and rejected matter. For him, what we regard as physical objects are collections of ideas in minds. For example, the device that you are using to read this is not a physical machine—it is ideas. On this view, all experiences are OBE—there are no bodies in which to have experiences. However, one could have experiences as if one was outside one’s body.

Another way to look at phenomenology is to think of virtual reality—only reality is all virtual with no physical entities. This provides a way to explain OBEs—they are glitches in perception. To use a video game first person shooter analogy, the game is supposed to have the game “camera” set so that it is as if you are seeing the world from the eyes of your character. This “camera” can glitch due to a software error, causing you to see the game world from a point “outside” your character’s head. This would be a game OBE. If phenomenology is correct, then perhaps OBEs are these sort of glitches—the point of perception is briefly in the wrong place. Since the world is clearly imperfect, such glitches are not inconceivable. Alternatively, it need not be glitch—perhaps this sort of perceptual capability is a feature and not a bug.

While I would like to regard my OBEs as supporting metaphysical dualism (and thus the possibility of existence after death), the best explanation is the least fun—that it is a malfunction of the brain; a strange hallucination.


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Ghosts of Philosophy

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2015

Ghosts of PhilosophyAnd this, my friend, may be conceived to be that heavy, weighty, earthy element of sight by which such a soul is depressed and dragged down again into the visible world, because she is afraid of the invisible and of the world below-prowling about tombs and sepulchers, in the neighborhood of which, as they tell us, are seen certain ghostly apparitions of souls which have not departed pure, but are cloyed with sight and therefore visible.

-Plato’s Phaedo


While ghosts have long haunted the minds of humans, philosophers have said relatively little about them. Plato, in the Phaedo, did briefly discuss ghosts in the context of the soul. Centuries later, my “Ghosts & Minds” manifested in the Philosophers’ Magazine and then re-appeared in my What Don’t You Know? In the grand tradition of horror movie remakes, I have decided to re-visit the ghosts of philosophy and write about them once more.

The first step in these ghostly adventures is laying out a working definition of “ghost.” In the classic tales of horror and in role playing game such as Call of Cthulhu and Pathfinder ghosts are undead manifestations of souls that once inhabited living bodies. These ghosts are incorporeal or, in philosophical terms, they are immaterial minds. In the realm of fiction and games, there is a variety of incorporeal undead: ghosts, shadows, wraiths, specters, poltergeists, and many others. I will, however, stick with a basic sort of ghost and not get bogged down in the various subspecies of spirits.

A basic ghost has to possess certain qualities. The first is that a ghost must have lost its original body due to death. The second is that a ghost must retain the core metaphysical identity it possessed in life. That is, the ghost of a dead person must still be that person and the ghost of a dead animal must still be that animal. This is to distinguish a proper ghost from a mere phantasm or residue. A ghost can, of course, have changes in its mental features. For example, some fictional ghosts become single-mindedly focused on revenge and suffer a degradation of their more human qualities. The third requirement is that the ghost must not have a new “permanent” body (this would be reincarnation), although temporary possession would not count against this. The final requirement is that the ghost must be capable of interacting with the physical world in some manner. This might involve being able to manifest to the sight of the living, to change temperatures, to cause static on a TV, or to inflict a bizarre death. This condition can be used to distinguish a ghost from a spirit that is in a better (or worse) place. After all, it would be odd to say that Heaven is haunted. Or perhaps not.

While the stock ghost of fiction and games is incorporeal entity (an immaterial mind), it should not be assumed that this is a necessary condition for being a ghost. This is to avoid begging the question against non-dualist accounts of ghosts. Now that the groundwork has been put in place, it is time to move on to the ghosts.

The easy and obvious approach to the ghosts of philosophy is to simply stick with the stock ghost. This ghost, as noted above, fits in nicely with classic dualism. This is the philosophical view that there are two basic metaphysical kinds: the material stuff (which might be a substance or properties) and the immaterial stuff. Put in everyday terms, these are the body and the mind/spirit/soul.

On this view, a ghost would arise upon the death of a body that was inhabited by a mind. Since the mind is metaphysically distinct from the body, it would be possible for it to survive the death of the body. Since the mind is the person, the ghost would presumably remain a person—though being dead might have some psychological impact.

One of the main problems for dualism is the mind-body problem, which rather vexed the dualist Descartes. This is the mystery of how the immaterial mind interacts with the material body. While this is rather mysterious, the interaction of the disembodied mind with the material world is really not anymore mysterious. After all, if the mind can work the levers of the brain, it could presumably interact with other material objects. Naturally, it could be objected that the mind needs a certain sort of matter to work with—but the principle of ghosts interacting with the world is no more mysterious than the immaterial mind interacting with the material body.

Non-dualist metaphysical view would seem to have some clear problems with ghosts. One such view is philosophical materialism (also known as physicalism). Unlike everyday materialism, this is not a love of fancy cars, big houses and shiny bling. Rather, it is the philosophical view that all that exists is material. This view explicitly denies the existence of immaterial entities such as spirits and souls. There can still be minds—but they must be physical in nature.

On the face of it, materialism would seem to preclude the existence of ghosts. After all, if the person is her body, then when the body dies, then that is the end of the person. As such, while materialism is consistent with corporeal undead such as zombies, ghouls and vampires, ghosts would seem to out. Or are they?

One approach is to accept the existence of material ghosts—the original body dies and the mind persists as some sort of material object. This might be the ectoplasm of fiction or perhaps a fine cloud. It might even be a form of energy that is properly material. These would be material ghosts in a material world. Such material ghosts would presumably be able to interact with the other material objects—though this might be rather limited.

Another approach is to accept the existence of functional ghosts. One popular theory of mind is functionalism, which seems to be the result of thinking that the mind is rather like a computer. For a functionalist a mental state, such as being afraid of ghosts, is defined in terms of causal relations it holds to external influences, other mental states, and bodily behavior.  Rather crudely put, a person is a set of functions and if those functions survived the death of the body and were able to interact in some manner with the physical world, then there could be functional ghosts. Such functional ghosts might be regarded as breaking one of the ghost rules in that they might require some sort of new body, such as a computer, a house, or a mechanical shell. In such cases, the survival of the function set of the dead person would be a case of reincarnation—although there is certainly a precedent in fiction for calling such entities “ghosts” even when they are in shells.

Another option, which would still avoid dualism, is for the functions to be instantiated in a non-physical manner (using the term “physical” in the popular sense). For example, the functional ghost might exist in a field of energy or a signal being broadcast across space. While still in the material world, such entities would be bodiless in the everyday meaning of the term and this might suffice to make them ghosts.

A second and far less common form of monism (the view that there is but one type of metaphysical stuff) is known as idealism or phenomenalism. This is not because the people who believe it are idealistic or really phenomenal. Rather, this is the view that all that exist is mental in nature. George Berkeley (best known as the “if a tree falls in the forest…” guy) held to this view. As he saw it, reality is composed of minds (with God being the supreme mind) and what we think of as bodies are just ideas in the mind.

Phenomenalism would seem to preclude the existence of ghosts—minds never have bodies and hence can never become ghosts. However, the idealists usually provide some account for the intuitive belief that there are bodies. Berkeley, for example, claims that the body is a set of ideas. As such, the death of the body would be a matter of having death ideas about the ideas of the body (or however that would work). Since the mind normally exists without a material body, it could easily keep on doing so. And since the “material objects” are ideas, they could be interacted with by idea ghosts. So, it all works out.


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Ex Machina & Other Minds III: The Mind of the Machine

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 11, 2015

While the problem of other minds is a problem in epistemology (how does one know that another being has/is a mind?) there is also the metaphysical problem of determining the nature of the mind. It is often assumed that there is one answer to the metaphysical question regarding the nature of mind. However, it is certainly reasonable to keep open the possibility that there might be minds that are metaphysically very different. One area in which this might occur is in regards to machine intelligence, an example of which is Ava in the movie Ex Machina, and organic intelligence. The minds of organic beings might differ metaphysically from those of machines—or they might not.

Over the centuries philosophers have proposed various theories of mind and it is certainly interesting to consider which of these theories would be compatible with machine intelligence. Not surprisingly, these theories (with the exception of functionalism) were developed to provide accounts of the minds of living creatures.

One classic theory of mind is identity theory.  This a materialist theory of mind in which the mind is composed of mater.  What distinguished the theory from other materialist accounts of mind is that each mental state is taken as being identical to a specific state of the central nervous system. As such, the mind is equivalent to the central nervous system and its states.

If identity theory is the only correct theory of mind, then machines could not have minds (assuming they are not cyborgs with human nervous systems). This is because such machines would lack the central nervous system of a human. There could, however, be an identity theory for machine minds—in this case the machine mind would be identical to the processing system of the machine and its states. On the positive side, identity theory provides a straightforward solution to the problem of other minds: whatever has the right sort of nervous system or machinery would have a mind. But, there is a negative side. Unfortunately for classic identity theory, it has been undermined by the arguments presented by Saul Kripke and David Lewis’ classic “Mad Pain & Martian Pain.” As such, it seems reasonable to reject identity theory as an account for traditional human minds as well as machine minds.

Perhaps the best known theory of mind is substance dualism. This view, made famous by Descartes, is that there are two basic types of entities: material entities and immaterial entities. The mind is an immaterial substance that somehow controls the material substance that composes the body. For Descartes, immaterial substance thinks and material substance is unthinking and extended.

While most people are probably not familiar with Cartesian dualism, they are familiar with its popular version—the view that a mind is a non-physical thing (often called “soul”) that drives around the physical body. While this is a popular view outside of academics, it is rejected by most scientists and philosophers on the reasonable grounds that there seems to be little evidence for such a mysterious metaphysical entity. As might be suspected, the idea that a machine mind could be an immaterial entity seems even less plausible than the idea that a human mind could be an immaterial entity.

That said, if it is possible that the human mind is an immaterial substance that is somehow connected to an organic material body, then it seems equally possible that a machine mind could be an immaterial substance somehow connected to a mechanical material body. Alternatively, they could be regarded as equally implausible and hence there is no special reason to regard a machine ghost in a mechanical shell as more unlikely than a ghost in an organic shell. As such, if human minds can be immaterial substances, then so could machines minds.

In terms of the problem of other minds, there is the rather serious challenge of determining whether a being has an immaterial substance driving its physical shell. As it stands, there seems to be no way to prove that such a substance is present in the shell. While it might be claimed that intelligent behavior (such as passing the Cartesian or Turing test) would show the presence of a mind, it would hardly show that there is an immaterial substance present. It would first need to be established that the mind must be an immaterial substance and this is the only means by which a being could pass these tests. It seems rather unlikely that this will be done. The other forms of dualism discussed below also suffer from this problem.

While substance dualism is the best known form of dualism, there are other types. One other type is known as property dualism. This view does not take the mind and body to be substances. Instead, the mind is supposed to be made up of mental properties that are not identical with physical properties. For example, the property of being happy about getting a puppy could not be reduced to a particular physical property of the nervous system. Thus, the mind and body are distinct, but are not different ontological substances.

Coincidentally enough, there are two main types of property dualism: epiphenomenalism and interactionism. Epiphenomenalism is the view that the relation between the mental and physical properties is one way:  mental properties are caused by, but do not cause, the physical properties of the body. As such, the mind is a by-product of the physical processes of the body. The analogy I usually use to illustrate this is that of a sparkler (the lamest of fireworks): the body is like the sparkler and the sparks flying off it are like the mental properties. The sparkler causes the sparks, but the sparks do not cause the sparkler.

This view was, apparently, created to address the mind-body problem: how can the non-material mind interact with the material body? While epiphenomenalism cuts the problem in half, it still fails to solve the problem—one way causation between the material and the immaterial is fundamentally as mysterious as two way causation. It also seems to have the defect of making the mental properties unnecessary and Ockham’s razor would seem to require going with the simpler view of a physical account of the mind.

As with substance dualism, it might seem odd to imagine an epiphenomenal mind for a machine. However, it seems no more or less weirder than accepting such a mind for a human being. As such, this does seem to be a possibility for a machine mind. Not a very good one, but still a possibility.

A second type of property dualism is interactionism. As the name indicates, this is the theory that the mental properties can bring about changes in the physical properties of the body and vice versa. That is, interaction road is a two-way street. Like all forms of dualism, this runs into the mind-body problem. But, unlike substance dualism is does not require the much loathed metaphysical category of substance—it just requires accepting metaphysical properties. Unlike epiphenomenalism it avoids the problem of positing explicitly useless properties—although it can be argued that the distinct mental properties are not needed. This is exactly what materialists argue.

As with epiphenomenalism, it might seem odd to attribute to a machine a set of non-physical mental properties. But, as with the other forms of dualism, it is really no stranger than attributing the same to organic beings. This is, obviously, not an argument in its favor—just the assertion that the view should not be dismissed from mere organic prejudice.

The final theory I will consider is the very popular functionalism. As the name suggests, this view asserts that mental states are defined in functional terms. So, a functional definition of a mental state defines the mental state in regards to its role or function in a mental system of inputs and outputs. More specifically, a mental state, such as feeling pleasure, is defined in terms of the causal relations that it holds to external influences on the body (such as a cat video on YouTube), other mental states, and the behavior of the rest of the body.

While it need not be a materialist view (ghosts could have functional states), functionalism is most often presented as a materialist view of the mind in which the mental states take place in physical systems. While the identity theory and functionalism are both materialist theories, they have a critical difference. For identity theorists, a specific mental state, such as pleasure, is identical to a specific physical state, such the state of neurons in a very specific part of the brain. So, for two mental states to be the same, the physical states must be identical. Thus, if mental states are specific states in a certain part of the human nervous system, then anything that lacks this same nervous system cannot have a mind. Since it seems quite reasonable that non-human beings could have (or be) minds, this is a rather serious defect for a simple materialist theory like identity theory. Fortunately, the functionalists can handle this problem.

For the functionalist, a specific mental state, such as feeling pleasure (of the sort caused by YouTube videos of cats), is not defined in terms of a specific physical state. Instead, while the physicalist functionalist believes every mental state is a physical state, two mental states being the same requires functional rather than physical identity.  As an analogy, consider a PC using an Intel processor and one using an AMD processor. These chips are physically different, but are functionally the same in that they can run Windows and Windows software (and Linux, of course).

As might be suspected, the functionalist view was heavily shaped by computers. Because of this, it is hardly surprising that the functionalist account of the mind would be a rather plausible account of machine minds.

If mind is defined in functionalist terms, testing for other minds becomes much easier. One does not need to find a way to prove a specific metaphysical entity or property is present. Rather, a being must be tested in order to determine its functions. Roughly put, if it can function like beings that are already accepted as having minds (that is, human beings), then it can be taken as having a mind. Interestingly enough, both the Turing Test and the Cartesian test mentioned in the previous essays are functional tests: what can use true language like a human has a mind.


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