by dhw, Thursday, April 26, 2018, 13:46 (667 days ago)


David and I have been discussing (almost ad nauseam) two diametrically opposed schools of thought: dualism and materialism. Dualists believe that the self consists of two elements, the immaterial mind or soul, and the material body; materialists believe that all our apparently immaterial attributes stem from our materials. Dualists claim that psychic experiences such as NDEs (Near Death Experiences) support their case, which is also supported by the fact that the brain is known to respond to thought, in so far as it complexifies and even expands in certain areas when we perform new tasks – i.e. the soul controls and even changes the brain. Materialists either dismiss psychic experiences or try to find material explanations for them, and their materialism is supported by the fact that people’s behaviour is known to change when influences such as diseases and drugs affect the brain. Thus we have a seemingly irreconcilable dichotomy. In this post I shall try to bring the two schools of thought together.

Most dualists relate the mind or soul to their belief in God, who has given them a piece of his consciousness. Some also believe that their soul will survive the death of the body – hence the importance of NDEs for their way of thinking. This, however, is only one option, and it is the second option I would like to explore.

The second option is based on the assumption that those who read this post are aware that they are reading it and are able to understand it and think about it, but reject the first option. In other words, they believe that the source of our intelligence (I’ll use that term very loosely to cover all the so-called immaterial attributes of the self) is our materials, and for argument’s sake let’s say that our thinking materials are located in the brain. What does the brain consist of? Billions of cells. And these cells are divided up into communities, each with their different functions, though always capable of communicating with one another and interacting. Scientists have even named them: pre-frontal cortex for intellectual activities, hippocampus for memory and emotion etc. (Of course the whole body is one vast community of interconnecting cell communities, but we are focusing here on “intelligence” and the brain.) Difficult though it is to imagine, each of these billions of cells is an individual. Its individuality may be swamped by the fact that it spends its life in the service of its particular community, but it is nevertheless an organism that lives and dies like any other.

At this point, I would like to consider two subjects that have played a very large part in our discussions on this website: the intelligence of bacteria and the community life of ants. Bacteria are single cells, though they also form communities. Of all organisms on earth, they seem to be the most skilful at adapting themselves to different conditions and solving every new problem that is thrown at them. Scientists such as Barbara McClintock, Lynn Margulis and James A. Shapiro have (or had, as two of them are now dead)no doubt that they are intelligent. That doesn’t mean they have all the immaterial attributes of humans, but it does mean that individual cells are sentient, process information, communicate and cooperate, take decisions etc., all of which are hallmarks of what we call intelligence. And they also combine their intelligences to form communities. But for us, a far more striking example of communal intelligence is that of insect communities such as ants. By combining their intelligences, they build the equivalent of our cities, and invent astonishing forms of defence, agriculture, engineering etc. And they also compartmentalize themselves – into foragers, farmers, nurses, warriors etc. And so if we put the two together, we have the intelligence and extreme adaptability of cells and the fact that a community of intelligences can produce a vast variety of thoughts (I don’t think it’s possible to build a city without thinking of building a city) and can divide themselves into differently functioning sub-communities.

If we accept the materialist’s view that intelligence is the product of our materials, then we must accept that intelligence is the product of our intelligent cells cooperating with one another. What other material source can there be? The end result is the same as that of the dualist who believes his/her intelligence is the product of a God-given soul.

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