The Mind and Its Now

The Mind and Its Now

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Window of Sinagoga el TransitoAugustine’s phrase in his Confessions, “quaestio mihi factus sum,” which is the motto of this conference, may strike one as something profoundly existential and perplexing about Augustine himself. The context of the phrase indicates nothing of that sort. There Augustine wonders whether it is sinful to enjoy the singing of psalms, because the charm of melody may distract one’s mind from the meaning of the words sung. This would impair prayer itself which Augustine had defined as elevatio mentis ad Deum, the lifting of the mind to God. I doubt, however, that Metanexus would have thought of organizing a conference either about psalm singing or about prayer. In Augustine’s eyes the distraction would have been a peccadillo, a venial sin, which even the just man of God commits seven times a day. To gain forgiveness of such sins nothing more was needed, according to Augustine, than to recite the Lord’s Prayer. This he compared to the act of a physician who applies a penicillum, or a swab dipped in ointment whereby a small wound can be cleaned. Please note the affinity of penicillum to the modern word penicillin which should evoke the rod-like shape of some bacteria that can dispose of some infections.

The broader context of Augustine’s phrase also suggests that his phrase was not prompted by some deep existential or moral doubt in him. Peter Brown and other recent misinterpreters of Augustine’s phrase fail to note that by 398, when Augustine wrote the Confessions, he had lived for ten years in an unsh­akable commitment to the Catholic Church as the work of the Word Incarnate. Contrary to some dubious experts on Augustine, Augustine the Catholic did not suffer even for a moment of identity crisis.

With these points laid down one may, however, consider meanings which Augustine really did not intend by his phrase, meanings that smack of modernity. The phrase, “quaestio mihi factus sum,” could have come from all preachers of modernity, beginning with Luther, through Descartes and Rousseau, to the German idealists—Kant, Fichte and Hegel—to the existen­tialists and phenomenologists. Luther for one admitted that it was very difficult for him to achieve peace of mind on the basis of his sola fides principle, which landed him in a state of schizophrenia. In that state the believer is to hold that although he is justified in the eyes of God, he nevertheless retains his sins and may sin boldly provided he believes even more forcefully. Rousseau sought escape from the nihilism of subjectivism as he dreamt about turning into a non-existent being. Husserl ended his life by admitting that he had failed to find the starting point of knowledge. The profound perplexities of Sartre as to who and what he was are too well known.

A little reflection on Kant and other idealists who find themselves trapped in their own minds will bring us closer to the subject of this presentation. As is well known, Kant and all Kantians derived all knowledge from reflecting on their own mind, or as was the case with Fichte, on their own will, or on the process whereby, as Hegel claimed the Absolute unfolded in their own cogitation. While this has been discussed to no end, hardly anything has been said on what Kant and Hegel wrote about the physical world or rather about various branches of physical science. As an absolute voluntarist Fichte avoided the subject of the external world, perhaps sensing that the hard sciences can flourish without the scientist being willful. Contrary to a not too old fad there is not much personal knowledge when it comes to the hard sciences where quantities alone count in the final analysis. Psychology and sociology may be forms of reasoned discourse (all too often they are not), but they should not be called science three hundred years after Newton’s Principia and a hundred years after Einstein’ relativity and the quantum theory of Planck, Bohr, Schrödinger, and others. For the same reason, theology should not be called science. Theology can and should be a reasoned discourse, but the label of science it should not carry, if a basic misunderstanding is to be avoided. Theology measures nothing, whereas science, exact science that is, stands or falls with measuring and counting and doing this with all possible exactness.

Man measures whenever he registers an object, however vaguely. Aristotle had already said that man knows things mostly by seeing their size or magnitude. He, of course, did not know that the eye was a scanning mechanism. At any rate, if it is true (and it is true) that man’s knowledge begins with registering the sensory world or something there, we can have a firm ground for taking a look in depth on what is the subject of this presentation, namely, “the mind and its now.” The subject brings us to the threshold of the gist of man’s self-awareness. It is his experiencing himself as he experiences the moment called now. Further, man cannot question himself unless he does it now and is self-conscious of this. Taken by itself and separated from its context, Augustine’s question opens a Pandora box but can also act as a pharos, a beacon, shedding light on man’s mind and far beyond it.

There can be no active mind without its sensing its existence in the moment called now. The realization of this is the driving force of modern philosophy from Descartes’ cogito on. Without suspecting that the cogito, a personal reflective act, cannot be a starting point of knowledge, he took it for such. He failed to realize that it is not possible to know without knowing something. One tries in vain to cogitate without cogitating about something. And that something has to be a thing before one is cogitating though never in separation from a thing.

It is a sign of mental infirmity or at least of illogicality to assume that man can know something about himself and question that knowledge without first knowing something, that is something, which is outside him. This claim is verified by any statement, whether a doubt or an objection, addressed to others. Only professed solipsists can claim exception to that rule, but they should not object to anyone about anything as long as they are solip­sists. All doubters, all idealists, all skeptics are realists when they speak or write. A book is a thing, one of the means whereby a message can be conveyed to others.

Prior to speaking to others, so many objects in a broad sense, the mind must first register things in whatever general way and activate thereby its consciousness and have thereby in his knowledge of things a mirror so to speak against which it can contemplate itself. The history of philosophy has shown that efforts which posited the mind as the first step in knowing invited disastrous discourses about the outside or physical world. Illustrations of this are works which Immanuel Kant and Hegel penned about various branches of physical science and of which they were enormously proud. Those books should fill with shame the admirers of Kant and Hegel. As a rule they prefer not to speak of those books. Principal among them are Kant’s Opus postumum and Hegel’s Enzyklo­pedi­e der Naturwissenschaften.

But there is another way of turning upside down the relation of the mind and the things. The way is that of logical positivists. One of them was Rudolf Carnap, and the only one among them who was bothered with the mind’s experience of its now. His concern for this is noteworthy because he went about it in the wrong way. He though that physics was the only sound way to know and to know anything. It was therefore logical only his part that he should approach, we are around 1935, Albert Einstein, the greatest physicist of the day, with the question whether it was possible to turn the experience of the now into a scientific knowledge. Such knowledge must of course be verified with measurement. We do not have the exact record of Carnap’s conversation with Einstein whom he went to visit in Princeton, at eighteen hours by train at that time from Chicago. But from Einstein’s reply which Carnap jotted down later, it is safe to assume that Carnap reasoned with him as outlined above. Einstein’s answer was categorical: The experience of the now cannot be turned into an object of physical measurement. It can never be part of physics.

This, of course, followed from the conviction, widely shared among physicists, that relativity theory has abolished simultaneity. It is argued that any measurement of the moment of the now is already a moment of the past by the time the data of measurements reach the observer. The first to note in this respect is that simultaneity is not tantamo­unt to an elaborate reference system in which everything is relative to anything else. It is further to be noted that the expansion of the universe forms an absolute reference system. But this is not the principal defect of Carnap’s struggle against the experience of the now which is intimately tied to self-awareness. The principal defect is that it reduces that experience—so rich and fundamental—to a mere measurement, whether it is possible to carry it out or not.

Let it be assumed that the experiment is possible. This implies that an electrode, perhaps with the help of nanotechnology, is attached to each of the ten billion or so brain cells, to all synapses connecting them as they keep firing and discharging. This means that they change their electric potentials all the time while they also recharge themselves. Assume that all these changes or properly recorded as well as coordinated by a super computer. These are assumptions of enormous magnitude and pose still unimagined challenges to the construction of capacitors. At any point there may arise an energy breakdown, limitations in terms of the Heisenberg relation, all of which influence, or rather vitiate the accuracy of the measurement. But whatever the success or the failure all that the experiment would yield is a vast set of energy levels displayed on the screen or written up by a needle. Should then one conclude that science, exact science, has gained a hold on the now and disclosed its nature? Should one now say that the experience of the now, the always momentary now, is simply a set of energy levels, or their graphic signatures? Would it not be the worst kind of mental poverty to think so?

Should one say that physics only provisionally cannot cope with the problem? It may be safer to say that physics, this most refined form of sensory experience, cannot get hold of the now. The now is a single, a singular moment. Each of those moments is separate, an isolated entity. Yet for a reason, which physical science, or neuroscience for that matter, cannot account for, those single moments appear to coalesce, unite as if suspended on a string. But the simile is misleading. The memory is not a string. When we remember something, we remember just a moment, a past situation, a past context. Yet one also knows that one’s past is con­nected to one’s present. The individual living in the moment, here and now, knows that the past moment is his and his alone. That same individual can also look into the future, can picture himself in a moment not yet present, in fact far ahead in time including the conviction that he or she still would be the same person or individual.

There is nothing analogous to this in the physical world, and nothing, as far as we know, in the neuronal system. There everything is juxtaposed, while here all is united. This merging into unity, into a single point, stands for the moment of consciousness. The nervous system contains no point where the self is localized. In that system the self is a ghost in the machine, which the brain is.

But just as the image of a string, with its instances of memory as so many beads suspended on it, is very inadequate, so is the image of a ghost. Unlike a ghost, something diffuse and foggy so to speak, the mind, or rather one’s personal identity, one’s consciousness cannot be had piecemeal. One can be sleepy, half-conscious, but the oneness of the one who experiences this remains intact. Three quarters of a century ago Charles Sherrington, the greatest modern student of the brain, spoke memorably on the mind’s baffling independence of the brain. The mind lives in a self-continued now or rather in the now continued in the self. This life involves the entire brain, some parts of which overlap, others do not.

The experience of the now is not a function of one of the overlap­ping parts. In what form consciousness is a function of the central part or the cerebellum is not known. There is no physical parallel to the mind’s ability to extend from its position in the momentary present to its past moments, or in its ability to imagine its future. The mind remains identical with itself while it lives through its momentary nows. In the absence of any physical parallel to all this, it may be tempting to continue with metaphysical considerations. No objections to this would be raised by those who appreciate the saying that the only way to avoid metaphysics is to say nothing. Indeed the concept of the nothing is the most metaphysical of all human notions as by definition there can be nothing physical to it.

But let us remain within the domain of what is the least metaphysical in relation to matter of which the brain, the grey matter, is a case. This least metaphysical feature of matter is the net of its quantitative properties. Physics is the most exact form of handling those properties and the way it handles them is astonishing. The latest case is the step from the web to the grid. The step was necessitated by the need to handle the millions of data pouring out from the SSC or the Superconducting SuperCollider. Very recently it became possible to introduce the grid into ordinary laptops. This means that the speed of data-sharing will be increased by millions. Entire movies will be downloaded in a minute or two. But this astonishing speed which may enable man to catch the Higgs boson as an explanation of gravitation, which operates everywhere there is matter, will not catch the now.

As long as relativity retains its validity, the now escapes the measuring devices of physics. This is just a reminder to those who think that physics determines truth. But the truth delivered by physics, this most exact science, remains a set of quantities, esoterically coordinated as such a set can be. As it lives in the mind and brings alive the mind, the now is immensely richer an experience than any marvelous set of numbers, even if science could give an account of the set of numbers, in terms of energy levels. The now is not a number. It is rather a word, the most decisive of all words. It is through experiencing that word that the mind comes alive and registers all existence around and well beyond. This should evoke the phrase that in the beginning was the verb or the word which is the active form of words. All our moments, all our nows, flow into a personal continuum, of which the supreme form is the NOW which is uncreated, because it simply IS. It should tell a great deal of the mind that it could come up with that most non-physical of all notions. This should make man puzzled even about the fact that he can become a question to himself, though not to the point of reducing himself to a mere question as if a question could be the first step in knowing. Were this the case, the question could not live in the now.